Paperback

Published: Lightning Books (September 2020)

ISBN: 9781785631887

The Girl from the Hermitage

Molly Gartland

£8.99

Galina was born into a world of horrors. So why does she mourn its passing?

SHORTLISTED: Impress Prize

LONGLISTED: Bath Novel Award

LONGLISTED: Grindstone Novel Award

It is December 1941, and eight-year-old Galina and her friend Vera are caught in the siege of Leningrad, eating wallpaper soup and dead rats. Galina’s artist father Mikhail has been kept away from the front to help save the treasures of the Hermitage. Its cellars could provide a safe haven, as long as Mikhail can survive the perils of a commission from one of Stalin’s colonels.

Three decades on, Galina is a teacher at the Leningrad Art Institute. What ought to be a celebratory weekend at her forest dacha turns sour when she makes an unwelcome discovery. The painting she starts that day will hold a grim significance for the rest of her life, as the old Soviet Union makes way for the new Russia and her world changes out of all recognition.

Warm, wise and utterly enthralling, Molly Gartland’s debut novel guides us from the old communist era, with its obvious terrors and its more surprising comforts, into the bling of 21st-century St Petersburg. Galina’s story is an insightful meditation on ageing and nostalgia as well as a compelling page-turner.

OUT SEPTEMBER 2020. AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER NOW

Extracts

it in his palms, glue side up, he returns to the kitchen. He holds the paper over a pot of water and scratches the knife across the brittle surface. Flakes of paste drop into the liquid. Hissing gas fuels a flame. Mikhail clasps his hands around the warm pot. Heat grows, pricking his palms and fingers. He lingers another fraction of a second before pulling them away. Pressing his warm hands to his cold cheeks, heat transfers through his skin, disappearing into his core.

Using a wooden spoon, he stirs and the flakes disintegrate. The smell, papier mâché, reminds him of his student years at Leningrad Academy of Art. As he waits for it to boil, rubbing his hands together in the warm steam, he thinks of his daughter, Galya. This stale old glue is not enough nourishment for her. He scrapes another strip from the corridor wall and scratches more paste into the pot. Holding it in the steam, the paper softens. The water begins to boil. It is not enough. He is useless.

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Extracts

December 1941

Mikhail scrapes a knife against the wall and a strip of yellowing floral wallpaper curls on the metal edge, peeling away from the plaster. Cradling it in his palms, glue side up, he returns to the kitchen. He holds the paper over a pot of water and scratches the knife across the brittle surface. Flakes of paste drop into the liquid. Hissing gas fuels a flame. Mikhail clasps his hands around the warm pot. Heat grows, pricking his palms and fingers. He lingers another fraction of a second before pulling them away. Pressing his warm hands to his cold cheeks, heat transfers through his skin, disappearing into his core.

Using a wooden spoon, he stirs and the flakes disintegrate. The smell, papier mâché, reminds him of his student years at Leningrad Academy of Art. As he waits for it to boil, rubbing his hands together in the warm steam, he thinks of his daughter, Galya. This stale old glue is not enough nourishment for her. He scrapes another strip from the corridor wall and scratches more paste into the pot. Holding it in the steam, the paper softens. The water begins to boil. It is not enough. He is useless.

Above the stained sink, three teacups hang from hooks. He scoops a cup into the broth and envelops his hands around it. The warmth seeps through the thin porcelain. Just as the heat starts to bite, he sets the cup on the kitchen table. He unwraps a newspaper parcel and cuts three pieces of bread, each about the size of a die, and places them in a shallow bowl. He folds paper around the remaining bread, which is smaller than his palm, and sets it aside. Hunger stabs at his stomach.

Taking the broth and bread, Mikhail walks down the kommunalka’s dark corridor. As he passes the door of the Kamerovs’ room to his left, Vera’s eyes meet his. The little girl, covered in several blankets, wears a pink knitted hat. She waves to him.

‘Can I get up, Mikhail Tarasovich?’ she asks.

‘Stay nice and warm in bed, Vera. You must rest. Conserve your energy.’

‘I’m bored.’

‘Your mother will be home soon, don’t worry.’

‘Can’t I play with Galya?’

‘Not now. She’s not well. We don't want you to get ill too.’

Vera sighs and her lower lip pouts. Her head, which looks too big for her tiny frame, drops.

Mikhail continues down the hall, past the flat’s main entrance on his right, and enters his room at the end of the corridor, leaving the door open behind him. Galya, buried under wool blankets, lies in her bed at the foot of his mattress. Only her brown hair is visible. He sets the cup and bread on a table beside her and presses his hand to her forehead and cheeks. She shivers from his touch.

‘Drink this slowly,’ he says, propping up her pillow and pulling the blankets around her. He hands her the cup, which has already cooled in the chilly flat.

Galya purses her chapped lips and takes a sip. Limp hair frames her gaunt face. Mikhail pinches one of the pieces of bread in half and gives it to Galya. She puts it in her mouth, leaving it on her tongue; she does not chew. She waits for it to dissolve slowly, making it last. Her hands, streaked with blue veins, cradle the porcelain cup. They look smaller but Mikhail knows this is impossible. Her bones cannot be shrinking.

He stands, walks to the window and pulls back the black fabric covering the glass. Although it is only one o’clock, the light is growing dim.

‘Galya, I have to go for more water. It’s getting dark.’

She takes another sip and nods.

‘Anna Petrovna should be back soon. I don't like to leave you but we need water.’ He knows it is dangerous to procrastinate; tomorrow brings uncertainty. It can, and probably will, be worse.

Setting the cup on the table, Galya sinks beneath the blankets and closes her eyes.

Mikhail looks again at the snowy street below, hoping to see Anna. Worry creeps into his thoughts. She has been out longer than he expected.

‘I’ll be as fast as I can.’ But he knows he will move slowly along the icy road.

He kisses her cheek and she smiles.

‘Don’t worry. I’ll look after Vera,’ she whispers.

‘Stay in bed and rest. And finish your soup.’

He returns to the kitchen, collects a pail and the kettle, and he walks down the corridor.

‘I heard you,’ calls Vera.

Mikhail stops at the Kamerovs’ door.

‘Will Mama be back soon?’ she asks.

He nods. ‘Don’t be afraid. Galya is in our room.’

He puts on his heavy coat. His scarf is draped over the radiator, which has not worked in weeks. The wool is still damp and will quickly turn icy cold in the wind. His wife’s loosely knit angora shawl hangs on the peg beside his coat. He winds the cloud of creamy soft fibres around his neck, immediately feeling its warmth. The scent of her hair and lilac perfume makes his throat tighten. How long will Elena’s scent linger now that she is gone?

‘Don’t open the door to anyone. Anna Petrovna has a key. I’ll be right back,’ he says, fastening his buttons.

Mikhail takes off his slippers, slides his feet into tall felt boots and stomps, willing them to warm quickly. He opens the door, steps out onto the landing and hesitates, hoping to hear Anna’s footsteps scuffing the dusty stairs. But the stairway is silent. He locks the door and heads down the four flights.

quotes

‘A beautifully written book that takes you right into the characters’ world. Highly recommended’

Lucinda Hawksley

‘The best historical fiction helps us walk through history alongside ordinary people and that’s what The Girl from the Hermitage achieves with deceptive ease. Molly Gartland’s evocation of Russian life in all its contrasting stages is always utterly convincing and frequently affecting. It’s a terrific debut’

Liz Trenow

‘A captivating and richly imagined portrait of love, life and survival’

Caroline Ambrose, founder, Bath Novel Award

reviews

‘Sweeps its heroine from surviving on soup made from wallpaper in 40s Leningrad to the bling of 21st-century St Peterburg. Recommended’

Waitrose Weekend

‘Characters are sketched sensitively with the same fragility as their existence. Galina’s story considers the reality of ageing and the value of nostalgia. Elegantly written, convincing...an enthralling read’

Yorkshire Times


extras

The Girl from the Hermitage looks at the enormous changes in the USSR/Russia through one woman’s eyes. Molly Gartland tells TripFiction about her own experience of the rapidly changing cities of Moscow and St Petersburg.

Here’s Molly on a lockdown panel of debut authors.

ABOUT

Molly Gartland

Originally from Michigan, Molly Gartland worked in Moscow from 1994 to 2000 and has been fascinated by Russian culture ever since.

She has an MA in Creative Writing from St Mary’s University, Twickenham and lives in London.

The manuscript for her debut novel The Girl from the Hermitage was shortlisted for the Impress Prize and longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition, the Bath Novel Award and Grindstone Novel Award.

Find out more about Molly at www.mollygartland.com.

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