The Siege of Leningrad is beyond the comprehension of 21st-century Americans, who have never known the horrors of war on their home soil. In a single, protracted struggle spanning two and a half years, nearly 1.5 million Russians died—more than all the American war dead in all the U.S. wars combined. Alzheimer's disease, on the other hand, is a horror Americans understand all too well: an aging loved one's gradual loss of memory and, ultimately, identity—like the starvation at Leningrad, a kind of death in life.
It is these two signal horrors of the 20th century that Seattle author and University of Oregon grad Debra Dean attempts to combine in her debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad (William Morrow, 229 pages, $23.95). Her premise is an engaging one: Marina, a young art docent, keeps up her will to survive the Siege of Leningrad by memorizing the paintings in the Hermitage Museum, which have been removed for safekeeping, only to have those memories retrurn to haunt her as an old woman suffering from Alzheimer's in the contemporary Pacific Northwest. It is a task requiring almost Proustian powers of description, and Dean is not quite equal to it—conveying the ugliness of perhaps the worst battle of World War II alongside the heartbreaking beauty of some of the world's greatest masterpieces, all within the confines of a 229-page novel. Dean's images of Leningrad during the war could have been, and probably were, lifted from Harrison Salisbury's definitive history of the siege, The 900 Days. In both books, starving Russians pull their shrouded dead through the streets on children's sleds. The paintings in the Hermitage survive, however, so that here, at least, Dean's descriptions can be relied on as firsthand. One can't help but wish Dean's book came with pictures, so that readers could fully appreciate the passion and perspicacity with which Marina recalls in minute detail Weyden's Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, for example.
If the passages set in wartime Leningrad are only sometimes compelling, the present-day scenes in which Marina attends a granddaughter's wedding in Washington state are decidedly not. It is only when the paintings of the Old Masters come to life, driving Marina ever closer to madness, that Dean's writing, like Zeus in Rembrandt's Danae, truly radiates.
Debra Dean appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Tuesday, March 28. Free.