book review: Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev



MOTHER WINTER by Sophia Shalmiyev
Simon & Schuster, February 12, 2019


Of the three memoirs I read this month, Mother Winter was far and away the one that hit me the hardest, which may surprise you as I’ve talked before about my disinterest in ‘motherhood books’ (only as a matter of personal taste). But I suppose Mother Winter is less of a mother book than it is a daughter book, centered on the irreconcilable grief that Sophia Shalmiyev incurred by growing up motherless. This is a sharp, focused, achingly tender and highly literary memoir that reads like a constant gut-punch.

Growing up in Leningrad in the 1980s, Shalmiyev had very little contact with her alcoholic mother, who she was forced to leave behind altogether when her father decided to emigrate in 1989. Shalmiyev spends the rest of her childhood and then adolescence and then adulthood unable to contact her mother, without any means of finding out if she’s even alive or dead. Her experimental memoir (which will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Maggie Nelson) fuses her unique experience of loss with themes of exile, grief, sexuality, displacement, and feminism; she often looks to iconic feminist women as stand-in maternal figures, as she relentlessly interrogates the lacuna that comes to define her.

Shalmiyev’s prose is vivid and searing. In this passage she’s talking about a dream she has where her mother is a statue at the bottom of the sea, and the imagery and emotional honesty on display here is rather emblematic of the rest of the book:

“When you’re fished out, you will go to your proper place in a museum to be admired by me only. I will polish your bronze name plaque, and I will be writing the small paragraph, printed on heavy card stock in a tastefully solemn font, about you as a priceless relic, a found shard, degraded, a puzzling piece of history. A head lost, bust found somewhere, a battered woman with blank eyes, erected by those who had infinite worship in their hearts.”

My one criticism is the overly abrupt ending, which leaves the reader with question after unanswered question. I obviously have to ask myself if that was indeed the point, which is certainly a possibility, but this is one of those books that seems so mired in the past that there isn’t much consideration for the future, and I’m left wondering what Shalmiyev intends to do after the final pages of this book. But, perhaps she does not owe us that explanation, or perhaps we will have to wait until she writes another book. Which I certainly hope she will.

Thank you to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review. I will check the quote against a finished copy upon publication.

17 thoughts on “book review: Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev

  1. Great to hear your thoughts on this one! I’m Russia-obsessed but hesitated on it after reading some so-so reviews. I think the writing style probably isn’t for me, but I’m glad to hear both that it’s not so motherhood-focused (we share that dislike in our reading material 😂) and that it’s very affecting. Maybe I’ll try it eventually.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was certainly bold of me to pick up a book with Mother in the title, that’s for sure 😂 Shalmiyev herself is a mother now of two children and that does play a certain role in the book, but it’s mostly about her experience of being kept away from her own mother growing up and every time she would ask her father to help him find her he would just say something like ‘what do you want with that whore?’ and ugh, it just broke my heart. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this if you do pick it up! It is very firmly rooted in its Russian origins so I think that element would appeal to you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha I completely agree, it was bold but sounds like it paid off! Wow, that does sound completely heartbreaking. I can’t imagine growing up and that’s how your father talks about your mother. How confusing and upsetting that must have been. But it seems more about the life experience overall than an examination of motherhood, the meaning of it and all that I prefer to avoid so that’s definitely a plus. I didn’t really connect with the excerpts I’d read of it because of the writing, but I also think it’s the kind you have to be in the mood for. It’s on my maybe list!

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is VERY fair, I think it’s ultimately the writing style that’s going to be very make-it-or-break-it for most people with this memoir. A few times I picked this book up when I was tired and I just wasn’t able to engage at all. But obviously I did end up loving it, so I just hope it finds the right audience!


  2. Wonderful review. I am by the way really sorry to have dropped the ball so on our buddy read (I am still only 12% in and at the moment just cannot really deal with anything heartbreaking. But I do intend to remedy that soon. My reading has been so very focussed on one author that I feel like I really should make a proper effort to read something else.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If anyone should apologize it is definitely me for not adjusting to your crazy busy schedule. I would have happily put this one aside if it weren’t an ARC as I am on a mission to read these on time, as we discussed earlier. Also, this definitely isn’t one to force on yourself if you’re not up for heartbreaking, so that is completely understandable. I do hope you love it whenever you’re in the mood to return to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I just need to sit myself down and make time for at least some of my ARCs. My boyfriend won’t be home on saturday evening and I plan to indulge in a few hours uninterrupted ARC reading. Maybe I’ll catch up at least a little bit.

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