Sometimes the gulf between reality and imagination is vast. Often it is at its greatest when it involves those things closest to our hearts, for here the possibility of self delusion is at its greatest.
When Maria Tumarkin returns to Russia with her Australian-born adolescent daughter Billie, she is hoping to share her past and to deepen the bonds between them. However the country she left in 1989 no longer exists and she rapidly realises that she can neither predict nor shape her daughter’s responses to the physical and emotional onslaught of the trip they are undertaking. Her own reactions also surprise her. While waiting at Vienna airport for their final flight, she is expecting to connect with the ‘lost, tense teenager I was myself when the Tumarkin family departed Kharkov almost twenty years ago’. Instead she finds herself thinking ‘Oh God, I am ridiculously underdressed’.
It is this exploration of her own visceral reactions to her birth country – to the familiar and to the changed – that is a major strength of Otherland. This willingness to delve into her own uncertainly and vulnerability when things do not go as planned. As she meets up with long lost friends and acquaintances, as she deals with the petty humiliations of bureaucracy, as her daughter refuses to use the toilets on a long distance train trip – all the challenges of the journey are met with an intense introspection.
She reflects on the work of many other Russian writers and thinkers, placing herself in a vivid tapestry of words and ideas. She also quotes at length from Billie’s diaries and this youthful input gives the book immediacy by centring the action in a voice that is clear and certain. This contrasts well with the multi-layered, highly-textured structure of her own thoughts and observations. There are many rich and varied themes running through this work. It is a book about mother–daughter relationships and it is also a book about Russia. Both are themes of truly epic proportion and Maria Tumarkin does them both justice.
She was born in 1974 in the former Soviet Union in a Russian Jewish family, which in 1989 immigrated to Australia. She has published two other books, Traumascapes (2005) and Courage (2007). She lives in Melbourne with her two children and is currently working as a Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne on the international ‘Social Memory and Historical Justice’ project.
Otherland is Maria’s third book. It is a complex and beautifully written work and has been shortlisted for The Age Non-Fiction Book of The Year.