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.