Book Review - The Wine of Solitude by Irène Némirovsky

The Wine of Solitude (first published in France in 1935) will hold a particular interest for Irène Némirovsky fans as it's considered the most autobiographical of her novels.

Although a slighter work than Suite Française, this strangely haunting tale about a young girl's volatile relationship with her mother, set against the dramatic backdrop of the Great War and the Russian Revolution, is another profound, exquisitely wrought, piece of writing.

Hélène Karol lives with her parents and maternal grandparents in Kiev. Throughout her childhood, Hélène feels closest to her French governess, Mademoiselle Rose, who offers affection and a sense of order. Her vain, neglectful mother, Bella, is only interested in her lovers and the latest fashion, and Hélène finds herself increasingly repelled: "She nurtured in her heart a strange hatred of her that seemed to increase as she grew older; like love, there were a thousand reasons for it and none; and, like love, there was the simple excuse: 'It's because of who she is, and because of who I am'."

Hélène's solitude nurtures her powers of observation and she turns to writing as a means of making sense of the world around her. But when Hélène's negative summary of her family is discovered on paper, her beloved governess is dismissed. Hélène blames her mother for the rupture. Her father, Boris, whom she adores, makes his fortune in the gold mines but his obsession with capitalising on his profits, with gambling and financial speculation, only adds to her sense of isolation. This is brilliantly encapsulated in a passage in which Boris leaves his young daughter waiting for hours alone outside the casino, "like a suitcase forgotten at the left luggage office". Hélène receives even less attention from Bella, who is accompanied everywhere by her lover, Max, 15 years her junior.

During the October Revolution, the Karol family are forced to flee and make their way to Finland before settling in Paris. On the brink of adulthood, embittered, but still naïve, Hélène's romantic initiation is doomed to failure. First she dallies with Fred, already married and father to a young family, described as "one of those men who seem eternally young, who don't know how to mature, but who will suddenly grow old, become bitter, spiteful and tyrannical". Later, Hélène sets her eyes on Max as a means of punishing Bella. In a startling realisation, "she rejected any morbid memories; she retained only an awareness of her strength, her age, her intoxicating power."

Beautifully translated by Sandra Smith, The Wine of Solitude offers a pitch-perfect evocation of adult duplicity. Némirovsky captures a peculiarly immoral time in the domestic sphere, played out on a tumultuous world stage. Fortunes are quickly won and lost and "people gave their blessing to adultery so that time transformed love affairs into a second, honourable marriage, respected by everyone, including the husband". It is an excoriating study of human selfishness and of lives cast adrift by cataclysmic events.

First published in the Independent on Sunday on 16 November 2011