It’s always hard to decide which book should kick off a new year of reviews, but this year Winterland seemed like an obvious choice. It came out at the end of November, I had read it on a bright sunny beach in the Bahamas in October, and I’ve been talking about it constantly at the bookstore ever since.
From the publisher marketing:
Soviet Union, 1973: There is perhaps no greater honor for a young girl than to be chosen for the famed USSR gymnastics program. When eight-year-old Anya is selected, her family is thrilled. What is left of her family, that is. Years ago, her mother disappeared without a trace, leaving Anya’s father devastated and their lives dark and quiet in the bitter cold of Siberia. Anya’s only confidant is her neighbor, an older woman who survived unspeakable horrors during her ten years imprisoned in a Gulag camp–and who, unbeknownst to Anya, was also her mother’s confidant and might hold the key to her disappearance.
As Anya rises through the ranks of competitive gymnastics, and as other girls fall from grace, she soon comes to realize that there is very little margin of error for anyone and so much to lose.
This is a book where nothing really happens, but everything happens, and that’s okay. Often I get annoyed by books that meander along without a plot to really drive them, or suspense building up, but in Winterland, we’re looking at a slice of Anya’s, our protagonist’s, life, and life isn’t really plot driven. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes everything happens all at once but you don’t know that until later.
Winterland is a meditation on Soviet Russia and communism through the lens of a nine year old who has been recruited into the brutal state gymnastics program. Her mother, a renowned dancer at the Bolshoi, has disappeared, and she doesn’t know why. Her father tows the party line, even when it puts his health at risk. And Anya will do anything to follow in his footsteps as a gymnast.
Her life is full of the daily realities of Soviet Russa – sports, learning about the Gulag from her upstairs neighbor and surrogate grandmother, the KGB shows up, there is an innate tension permeating the book that relies on the readers background knowledge of the place and time they are reading about. If you don’t already know about the horrors of Soviet Russia, this book will not land the same way, but if you know, you know, and you wait for all the terrible things that you expect to happen, to happen.
And they do, but all things considered, Rae is very kind to her characters. They clearly occupy a special place in her heart and mind and she fits them lovingly into the time in which she has placed them – I’m always curious how authors integrate real events, like Olympics, and Rae does it well. Given the time, of course the great Nadia Comaneci makes a cameo, and many of the Soviet gymnasts Anya trains with are based on real gymnasts from the time.
It is, at it’s heart, a story about growing up, discovering yourself, and figuring out your place and role in society around you. It is, and is not, just a gymnastics book, or another work of historical fiction. It is a beautifully written commentary on universal themes that all women, young and old, can relate to.
Rating: 10 out of 10