Iron Curtain: A Love Story
- By Vesna Goldsworthy
- W.W. Norton & Company
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
- March 8, 2023
A stark, oftentimes brutal portrait of the East-West divide.
Vesna Goldsworthy’s Iron Curtain is set in an undisclosed USSR satellite state in the 1980s, seemingly at the end of the Cold War. But you wouldn’t know it from the story, which masterfully delves into the still-sharp differences between East and West, questions the purported ideals of both, and boldly if nihilistically (and rarely for Western literature) deconstructs the belief that one is more virtuous than the other. Regardless of whether you agree with the author’s conclusions, her novel is a thoughtful, relevant read.
Milena is a “Red Princess,” a royal in all but name, being the daughter of a high-ranking Soviet official. She receives gold medals for writing “mediocre” essays; has access to Lacoste and Ray-Bans and even Yves Saint Laurent; and gets away with attending artistic performances discouraged by the state. “We were connoisseurs of snobbery,” she says, “and I am sorry to admit that I was worse than most.”
This entitlement is played out publicly when Milena’s boyfriend accidentally — or not — shoots himself during a game of Russian roulette. Milena is traumatized by his death but continues to receive the benefits and luxuries of her father’s name.
It is in the shadow of this trauma that she meets Jason Connor. Jason is a poet, a Brit, and the other half of A Love Story. In between a drunken international poetry festival dinner, shoe shopping, and a search through her famous father’s wardrobe, Milena and Jason literally fall into bed together:
“Foreigners, at least the occidental varieties, were scarce in our country. The few who ever dwelt among us became objects of curiosity…Encountering a good-looking, educated visitor from the West…had the alluring qualities of a fairy tale.”
Milena buys into the fairytale, falling in love with the idea of it far more than with the man himself. Despite it not having bothered her before, being watched suddenly becomes hateful to her. Her parents’ upkeep of her lavish lifestyle turns controlling, the state clinical. The opulence sours. “I could never be myself in this country,” she tells us, recognizing the limitations of the Soviet system, especially for women. So, she flees to London, where she reunites with her lover.
As it turns out, freedom in the West has a price. “London would be a city of sorrows for me,” Milena reveals. In fact, Jason is the definition of a perpetual student, living in university housing and refusing to get a real job. His parents — nice enough, albeit aloof — are not much better.
“I understood why people of my parents’ type ridiculed notions of high Western living standards,” she reflects, “beyond the luxury enjoyed by a small, exploitative elite.”
Milena continues to learn this lesson when Jason’s parents deny them financial assistance, forcing the young pair into “squalor.” Milena’s lack of power in her new country is brought into razor-sharp focus as the couple struggles through their bohemian poverty, which inevitably leads to betrayal. In short, what her parents — and the East — warned her about.
Born in the former Soviet Union myself, I recognized much from Goldsworthy’s portrayal of East and West. The empty shelves at the shops, the lack of choices, the availability of Western clothes to some (the happiness I felt at receiving a Disney Cinderella — or was it Jasmine? — T-shirt from America!). The differing parenting styles, too, that I see between my own Russian parents and American in-laws, are familiar. I could go on and on. The details in the novel are so wonderfully precise, it felt a bit like traveling back in time.
The book’s structure is clever, moving as fluidly between the years and memories as the reader through the pages. The prose is stark and brutal yet offers flashes of unexpected humor and beauty — as does our protagonist, who embodies the decidedly Eastern European view I recognize from my own upbringing. Maybe a sort of nihilism, too.
Ultimately, I wanted Goldsworthy to delve deeper into Milena’s psyche. We’re told she doesn’t like how she is treated by the state and her parents, and we see her response to this treatment. Yet we are not fully privy to her reasoning, or to how she truly feels. The adage of show versus tell comes to mind, particularly when we are informed that Milena is in love, is angry, is heartbroken, etc., but don’t quite see (or believe) it.
As a result, on an emotional level, Iron Curtain leaves something to be desired. The first-person point of view is veiled, hiding the depths I craved. It makes the pay-off from Milena’s big decision at the end weaker than it might have been.
The “love story” in the novel’s title is ironic, of course. This isn’t a love story; it’s a falling-out-of-love story: not only with a man, but with a country (or two), an ideology (or two), and, for Milena, with herself, at least before she finds her power, however imperfect it may be.
Originally from Moscow, Olesya Salnikova Gilmore is an historical and fantasy fiction author and lawyer living in Chicago. Her writing is inspired by Eastern European folklore and history. The Witch and the Tsar, her debut novel, is out now from ACE/Penguin Random House. Her essays and reviews have appeared in LitHub, Tor.com, Historical Novels Review, Bookish, the Independent, and elsewhere.