Review: The Wine of Solitude by Irene Nemirovsky

Helene is a troubled young girl. Neglected by her self-absorbed mother and her adored but distant father, she longs for love and for freedom. As first the Great War and then the Russian Revolution rage in the background, she grows from a lonely, unhappy child to an angry young woman intent on destruction. The Wine of Solitude is a powerful tale of an unhappy family in difficult times and a woman prepared to wreak a shattering revenge.

Reading this novel was like immersing myself in a vivid, sensual and unhappy dream. I ended up racing through it in a matter of hours. Nemirovsky’s artistry with language is heady and sensory and is wonderfully translated into English by Sandra Smith.

The sleigh rushed towards a faint light that seemed to disappear then return, happily twinkling through the falling snow. The night was crystal clear and bitterly cold. The snowfields of Finland were endless, without a single rock, a single hill, just an enormous expanse of ice as far as the eye could see; at the horizon the ice seemed to curve slightly, as if it were embracing the entire world.

The protagonist, Helene, continually professes how hard hearted she is becoming throughout the novel like the adults that surround her but we see her continually grappling with her morality with a dark humour from a young age. Half the book seems to take place inside Helene’s mind and her thoughts of the world around her and analysing the type of person she is herself. Dismissed cruelly and neglected by most of the adults around her this makes her observations even more engaging.

Determination to get revenge on her mother by using the same weapons has Helene’s constantly uneasy about the similarities between them. While Bella has life experience, Helene does not and several times when she thinks she has control over her own interactions with men she is left floundering. Despite her belief she is an adult, when she successfully seduces someone she is lost on exactly what to do with him. The war and revolution come second in the novel to the sledge rides, love affairs, card games and Helene’s sexual awakening and the realisation on how she can use it.

Written in 1934, this is Nemirovsky’s most autobiographical novel. Knowing this after finishing it makes the story even more melancholic and the ending more satisfying. It is not blank space after Helene’s story but the possibilities of Irene Nemirovsky’s life. This is the first book by Nemirovsky I have read so I don’t compare it to her most famous work Suite Française, although this has encouraged me to read it.


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