The London-based literary agent Ed Victor once said to the writer Susan Johnson that he’d never come across a people more insecure about their relationship with their homeland than Australians – except, of course, the Russians. So perhaps it makes sense that an Australian should tell this story of a Jewish Russian émigré struggling to reinvent herself while missing what was best about the old country.
Andrea Goldsmith’s carefully constructed novel about exile and longing begins in Leningrad in the mid-1980s. Galina Kogan, an illustrator by profession, and her mother are planning to immigrate to the United States. Cold War restrictions on freedom of movement have eased and Jews can now leave the country, but when her mother dies, Galina’s plans are thrown into confusion. Should she stay or should she go? The life she imagined – a life with her mother – is now impossible.
After a chance meeting with an Australian mosaic artist who’s studying one of the great Petersburg cathedrals, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, she decides to go to Melbourne. And so the scene moves to an Australia Galina knows almost nothing about.
She moves into a converted saddlery in Carlton, attracted to the cosmopolitan inner-urban lifestyle. Soon she’s working at two jobs, feasting on pineapple doughnuts and rotisserie chicken, and generally having a good time.
Whether the reader has a good time will depend on her tolerance for sweeping generalisations about that hoary old chestnut, the Australian national character. Through Galina, we learn that Australians are easygoing, smug, suspicious of intellectuals and irreverent. They look young. Their houses are large. They like hearing about themselves. And so it goes on.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say the first third of the book is a sort of elevated They’re a Weird Mob for the 1980s, without the humour. Invented Lives is a more complex and nuanced book, of course, but it still trades on the thrill of seeing the country through foreign eyes; and the thrill is hardly diminished by the fact that, just like Nino Culotta, Andrea Goldsmith is actually one of us.
At first Galina strives to assimilate and give up her Russianness entirely:
She shed, she rubbed, she scoured until she was sure that if she were seen walking in the street or shopping at the supermarket, she would be taken for an Australian.
Soon, however, she recognises that her Russian past is too much a part of her essence to be utterly suppressed. And, at the same time, a sense of belonging continues to elude her in Australia. Realising that she needs a deeper personal or emotional connection to her new country, Galina reaches out to the mosaicist she met in the Soviet Union. Unbeknown to her, the young artist has been dreaming of the striking Russian woman with the dark eyes and olive skin since they first met nearly a year before. When she calls, he’s overjoyed. But, alas, because he’s so painfully shy, he never admits his love, and the two fall into a close friendship without consummation.
Goldsmith’s story really gets going, more than 100 pages in, when we meet the mosaicist’s parents. Outwardly, they seem like a perfect couple with intuitive rapport. They’re affectionate to each other and effortlessly comfortable, yet they’re both – as Goldsmith rather ponderously reveals – exiled from their true selves.
The mother is a woman of marked intellectual curiosity who has never managed to escape the role of housekeeper. She finds creative fulfilment collecting the personal letters of strangers and imagining their inner lives, but what she’d really like to do is write a book about this passion.
The father, who now sells library furnishings, once dreamed of writing poetry. He also likes blokes and has secretly been sleeping with his accountant for years. So, yes, he too leads a life in which a significant part of his self is hidden. Galina senses all this and latches on to both parents empathically.
Goldsmith’s novel shows careful research in its evocations of time and place. We get backstories of Melbourne in the 1950s and Leningrad in the late 1930s, and there’s no denying this book’s base-level plausibility. Life in Russia and the endless hardships of Galina’s family carry conviction, as far as they go. But the care and labour of accumulated authenticity does come to feel oppressive.
Like her protagonist, Goldsmith loves to be in control. We always know to a fault what everyone is feeling; and it can be just a bit deadly the way her characters are coolly pushed around the chessboard. All this precise orchestration is odd in a book that touches so self-consciously on, is so preoccupied with, the importance of the imagination. Invented Lives ultimately stifles the imagination because it leaves the reader little room for speculation.
Perhaps this is why the occasional swerves towards the grotesque are more memorable than anything else. With these intrusive moments, Goldsmith seems to loosen her hold on her own material, and there’s an excitement in that. While Galina is still in Leningrad, for example, and vacillating about whether or not to emigrate, she meets with her aunt who tries to convince her to stay:
She is caught by Nadya’s face, a face so familiar she’s not really looked at it before. It is as if a hessian sack has been stuck to the skull and neck, leaving holes for the eyes and mouth. This rough, mustardy fabric-skin, falling in folds and creases, is the map of Nadya’s life.
This picture is in excess of the narrative’s demands; and it’s a striking image in a book that often favours polish at the expense of vividness.
Invented Lives is nonetheless a thoughtful novel. Galina is tough-skinned and has pulled herself out of a difficult situation to make a new start in a strange land. Goldsmith knows, however, that willpower alone is not enough, even if this novel can seem a monument to it. It’s only with imagination that you can really start again.
Scribe, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 6, 2019 as "Andrea Goldsmith, Invented Lives".
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