Headline Review | 2018 (18 October) | 456p | Review copy | Buy the book
When the Romanovs, the overthrown ruling family of Russia, arrived in Ekaterinburg in 1918 they could have had no idea that this would be their final prison, that there could be no escape. At least, not for all. Maria Romanov, one of the Grand Duchesses, drew people to her with her naturally friendly nature. While this could lead to grief, it could also lead to love and to salvation. More than one of the guards fell for Maria but one in particular risked his life for her. This is the story of what might have been.
This isn’t the first time that Gill Paul has written a novel about the Romanovs. In the wonderful The Secret Wife, the life of another of the daughters, Tatiana, was reimagined. Now, in the centenary of their murder, the author turns to her sister Maria, giving her another chance of life. Events from the earlier novel are referred to here so it exists in the same historical universe. It adds another poignancy as Maria ceaselessly wonders what happened to Tatiana.
The Lost Daughter is an enchanting novel, quite melancholic at times, and extremely hard to put down. Maria is brought to life so beautifully. We live years of her life with her as she endures so much, her memories of her grand childhood growing ever fainter as she must deal with the reality of living in a Russia that wanted her dead and killed her family. But, as the years pass, things don’t get easier as the novel takes us through decades of Russian history, through the poverty and hardship of Lenin’s rule, through the terror of Stalin, and through the misery of the Second World War – the Siege of Leningrad forms a central part of the novel and it was this section that kept me up until so late into the night. It is utterly compelling.
As with The Secret Wife, there is a parallel story going on here. In this strand, we follow Val, an Australian woman living in Sydney who has an elderly, bitter, haunted Russian father. Val’s own life is difficult. She has an abusive husband. Her mother was driven away by her father. But now Val is breaking free and to do that she must understand her origins and what it is that tormented her father on his deathbed. It will lead her on a fascinating pilgrimage to the Soviet Union.
I must admit that I didn’t find the early chapters in Val’s life easy to read. Domestic violence is a subject I prefer to avoid in fiction but, once that section was past, I became thoroughly involved in Val’s tale. The chapters covering Maria’s life were the most engrossing – and how could they not be? What a story! – but I became increasingly intrigued by Val’s role in the novel, especially towards the end when everything comes together in such an emotionally charged and perfect way.
The Secret Wife is so steeped in 20th-century Russian history, mainly focusing on St Petersburg, or Leningrad as it became. I’ve visited the city several times (when it was Leningrad), including the mass graves from the Siege, and I think that Gill Paul captures its spirit – resilience, fortitude and suffering. I found it really emotional. But the novel also has the feel of a saga. Several generations are covered as Maria’s family grows and each must face their own challenges while finding their own peace and love. The role of the family is central to this book, especially the relationship between parents and children. Maria has lost so much and yet she has so much to give. I wept for her, and with her, more than once. Maria is the perfect subject for this gorgeously written, emotional, glorious, sweeping tale of tragedy, survival and Soviet Russia.
Other reviews and features
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
The Secret Wife
Another Woman’s Husband
Guest post: ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband’