Published by Chatto & Windus
Publication date: October 13th 2011
At eight, Hélène Karol lives in a small Russian town with her parents, Boris and Bella, and her grandparents. She is an odd, lonely girl largely because her mother is willful, spoiled and selfish, interested in only her own desires and unwilling to do anything more than blame her daughter for spoiling her fun. When her father loses his job and leaves for Siberia to manage a goldmine, and hopefully, make the fortune necessary to support his wife, Hélène’s life becomes even more solitary. She is saved from complete isolation by her French governess, Mademoiselle Rose, whom she adores and is the only person who loves her back.
When she turns twelve, she and her mother depart for St. Petersburg to be reunited with her father who has acquired a small fortune. Also joining them is her twenty-four year old cousin Max. It soon becomes apparent that while her father is consumed with making more and more money through his gambling and stock speculations, her cousin and mother are consumed by each other. Hélène is the silent watcher amidst the instability and acquisitive goings-on in her family, learning too much too quickly. Her parents discard people as quickly as they acquire expensive belongings being sold off by the aristocracy, fleeing Russia in the face of the Red Army. Her grandparents have been left behind as easily as the clothes her mother no longer deigns to wear, preferring the latest fashions from Paris. Despite the war, fear, and deprivations the Karols seem insulated from trouble. Boris continues to profit from others’ misfortunes while her mother’s affair with Max is without any discretion. In the midst of all this, Hélène grows up.
But now, other dreams filled her mind, dreams that returned again and again, imperious dreams of domination: to be a queen, to be a feared statesman, to be the most beautiful woman in the world…
Her growing desire for revenge against the mother who has never shown her an ounce of interest, much less love, leads her to act rashly and allows her mother to take a terrible revenge upon her. The war closes in and the family leaves Russia for Finland, finally settling in Helsinki. By the time Hélène is 16, this hatred has coalesced into a desire to get revenge on her mother and a way to do so becomes easily apparent.
“To take Max away from her! To make both of them suffer the way they made me suffer! I didn’t ask to be born…They brought me into this world and left me to grow up alone. It’s a crime to have children and not give them an atom, a crumb of love. To take her lover away from her! Me, little Hélène!”
Irène Némirovsky is a writer of quiet intensity and The Wine of Solitude is the perfect showcase. Using the backdrop of, not only World War I, but the fall of the Russian monarchy she mirrors the chaos of the larger world in that of Hélène’s. This is a girl growing to womanhood with a wealth of secondhand belongings, covered in tarnished silver with other families’ crests but never knowing how long she will be in this place, who of her family will be there, and where they will go next. The riches mask an empty life; there is no substance behind the glitter and Helene struggles, alone, to make sense of herself and her world. In great wealth she is surrounded by a poverty of emotion and humanity.
The Wine of Solitude plumbs the depth of human emotion in each of the characters, in all its pain and ugliness, and forces us to look. Who is the victim and who the culprit? There is sadness and loss to Helene’s story but also joy. We cannot help but follow as in Némirovsky’s understated internal view of each character, they muse, sparkle, and suffer.