Among the quilters

Peter Campbell

  • Asya by Michael Ignatieff
    Chatto, 313 pp, £13.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3509 3
  • Health and Happiness by Diane Johnson
    Chatto, 260 pp, £13.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3597 2
  • Happenstance by Carol Shields
    Fourth Estate, 388 pp, £13.99, March 1991, ISBN 1 872180 08 6

Asya, the heroine of Michael Ignatieff’s novel of revolution and exile, is born into an aristocratic Russian family in 1900. As a child, she nearly drowns walking out over the thawing ice beneath which the River Vasousa roars. She has a vision there of a great skater. Her brush with death changes her and leaves her with a belief ‘even when fear had her in its clasp ... that it would let her go.’ The reader is thus guaranteed a courageous heroine. And a beautiful one. She is no Jane Eyre with only grit and tenacity to compel a hero’s love: ‘she had inherited her mother’s tall thin good looks. “You look like a fine pair of Borzoi hounds,” Father used to say of them in his jocular manner, meaning that they were fineboned and delicate of feature, with long, finely tuned limbs ... She had curly black hair, pale white skin and lustrous black eyelashes.’ But her father admires most her strong chin, wide downy upper lip and moth-grey eyes. About such a heroine a vast amount of tosh could be written. Ignatieff’s novel is subtitled ‘a love story’, which suggests it will rise, for better or worse, into the upper emotional register. Despite every opportunity of scene and action, it never does. He is too self-aware, or perhaps too fastidious, to abandon himself to a coloratura line. Instead, he chills Asya’s character to the point where he as narrator can safely handle it: ‘When in later life people said she was cold, she never disagreed. For she knew, and some inner recess of her body never forgot, how cold the river torrent had been.’

Asya ages with the century. In her teens she works for a military hospital in Moscow. When the Revolution comes she is with her ailing father. He dies, and she is abducted to nurse White Russian wounded. She falls in love with Sergei, an artillery officer, loses touch with him in the confusion of civil war and, as the first part ends, is aboard an Orient Line steamer bound for Toulon, still bearing the marks of its use as a troop ship at Gallipoli. The descriptions of civil war are terse and cimematic; the change from the sweetness of the old life to the disorder of the new is told in intercut scenes. Misty meadows and fruit ripening in the conservatory are juxtaposed with broken glass and torn fabric.

Asya’s first exile is to France; she finds she is pregnant and bears Sergei’s child. She is loved by a poet and a doctor, both Russian, both involved with émigré plots and factions. Then Sergei turns up on her doorstep – mysterious, and alarmingly marked by the experience of war. He becomes rich by trading with Russia. As the Second World War approaches, Sergei’s business comings and goings become hard for his wife to follow (his son accuses him of being one of Stalin’s spies); he disappears to the East. Asya escapes to England. At the end, a very old lady, she unravels the last threads of stories which time and the dislocations of war have left tangled and obscure.

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