Book Review - Iron Curtain

Vesna Goldsworthy’s beautifully crafted third novel begins with a quote from Euripides’ Medea: “Stronger than lover’s love is lover’s hate. Incurable in each, the wounds they make.” This is followed by a prologue marking the fall of the Berlin Wall in December 1990. Both offer clues to the novel’s denouement.

The main narrative opens nine years earlier in 1981 and is set east of the Iron Curtain. Milena Urbanska is the privileged daughter of a francophone mother and the vice-president of an unnamed satellite of the Soviet Union. Milena and her architecture student boyfriend, Misha, are members of the elite, for whom several rules don’t apply. Milena dresses in black, “the Juliette Greco of the Steppes”, pronounces Misha who wears the latest western designer brands: “navy Converse, red-label 501s with button flies, a racing-green Lacoste polo, Ray-Ban aviators.” Their families have servants (although calling them that is “studiously avoided”) and enjoy smuggled luxuries from the West. Misha drinks Bitter Lemon from Italy and owns “the only LP of Evita this side of the Iron Curtain.” Even then, a certain level of opulence was achievable, it seems, although never fully compensating for the lack of cultural and political freedoms.

Milena speaks for them both when she concludes that their outlook: “was not so much about worshipping the West…as about a refusal to belong to the East.” Neither are particularly happy. We are given a glimpse of Milena’s calculating nature early on when she admits: “I wanted a boyfriend, he was good-looking and good in bed. The local choice was limited.” However, the comforting familiarity of their relationship is abruptly curtailed when Misha dies in a senseless game of Russian Roulette, a shocking act which Goldsworthy describes in spare, stark prose. Numbed by the tragedy, Milena buries herself in her studies and, after graduation, accepts a job translating scientific papers in maize research. This, she resigns herself, is her lot. When a literary conference is held in the state capital, her translation skills are called upon and she agrees to interpret for Jason Connor, an English poet who proudly claims to be a Marxist.

Inevitably he falls for the cool, “fierce” Red Princess and she is attracted by Jason’s nonchalance – so different from Misha. This is immediately suggested by his dishevelled first appearance: “He walked through the arrivals gate in a yellow T-shirt and a pair of faded jeans, with a tatty little canvas back-pack on his shoulder.” There is the hint of something distasteful in  Milena’s observation: “His plimsoles, once presumably white, were now the colour of a urine sample.” In contrast to Milena’s carefully constructed beauty, Jason’s good looks are effortless: “He was tall and slim, with a handsome narrow face and a mop of copper-blond hair.”

At the end of their few, mostly ‘chaperoned’ days together, and one sexual encounter, Jason begs Milena to leave with him, she refuses. Months later, Milena decides to follow him and defects to drab, damp London where she discovers that the grass is not always greener. The novel is neatly divided into two parts. Goldsworthy clearly enjoys exploring the cultural differences – some expected, others less so. It’s a theme she knows well having come to the UK from Belgrade in 1986, when she was twenty-four, to live with her British husband. A poet herself, she started writing in English, her third language, and has previously described the difficulties of straddling two cultures.

In the second half of Iron Curtain, Goldsworthy deftly illustrates western hypocrisy and the rituals of wealth that are often baffling to an outsider. Milena arrives in December 1984. Her life with Jason is not what she had expected. Funded by a grant, he’s studying for a PhD, writing and publishing his poetry, and renting student accommodation. They eventually move to a tiny one-bed flat in Shepherd’s Bush. Naturally, Milena’s parents employ an agent to keep an eye on her and send money when they realise she is living in penury. Goldsworthy exhibits a keen eye for detail in her droll portrayal of Jason’s well-to-do family. They inhabit a draughty farmhouse with no central heating, preferring scratchy blankets and hot water bottles, and put the dogs’ needs before the human. Milena drily observes: “The wine was some of the best I’d ever tasted, but the food was disgusting.”

Goldsworthy’s evocative descriptions of both worlds - the rigid ice of the east and the damp predictability of the west - lend a filmic quality to this layered novel. The love and hate that emanates from both sides feels real and is exhausting. Milena gives up everything she knows for Jason, they have twins and, initially, Goldsworthy suggests, love may conquer all. However, when betrayed, Milena’s revenge is swift, like Medea’s, and devastating. However, in a neat twist, Goldsworthy’s prologue suggests one outcome that Milena could not have predicted.

Originally published by New Humanist