What’s Leningrad Nights all about?:
A story of human dignity , the hunger for survival and a possibly angelic intervention set during the 900 day siege of Leningrad in WWII. Our main character is Leo, a young boy facing his own personal battle in his war torn homeland as he decides he wants to help those suffering in the war regardless of his own hunger or safety. This leads him to a pregnant prostitute who is close to death in a derelict building. After nursing her back to health, and delivering her baby, Leo finds out the grisly truth of what you have to do to survive.
What did I think?:
My previous encounter with Graham Joyce involved reading his novel “Some Kind of Fairy Tale” which I enjoyed, so I was looking forward to a story with perhaps an element of magic or mystery. What I was not prepared for was a tale of survival in Russia during the Second World War which requires a bit of a strong stomach! Our main character is a boy called Leo, and as we join him, he and his uncle are trying to live through the 900 day siege, by scavenging for food and trying to keep warm in the hostile, bitterly cold weather, as they are effectively, cut off from the rest of the country. With no heating, water supply, electricity, and very limited food stocks, multitudes of people died from starvation and the cold, rather than from the shelling. One particularly poignant description notes a woman who fell asleep standing up outside in the cold, out of pure exhaustion and never awoke.
Not long after the story begins, Leo’s uncle also dies, and he is forced to fend for himself. This is when he comes across a young woman in a shabby building, pregnant and at death’s door. After procuring some food for her, nursing her, and delivering her baby, the woman is certain he is an angel, and it is a miracle that he can find nourishment to feed them all. This is what Leo calls “best steak,” and it is hard to picture the grim determination (and desperation!) that must have been involved for him to obtain this special meat.
I really enjoyed this short story, despite its grisly and to be frank, quite disgusting nature. But after screwing up my nose on a few occasions I began to really appreciate both the author’s style and the gripping narrative that led me to miss my stop on the tube as I couldn’t put it down! The fantasy element is also weaved in when Leo finds his uncle’s opium tea that leads him to hallucinate a different Leningrad with a “golden glow” and a doppelganger or alternate view of himself. (It is the alternate him of course, that carries out murky deeds with a corpse and an axe). Sometimes, I think the author enjoys writing with the sole aim of shocking the reader, and there are sentences in the story that I simply can’t repeat here, but feel it gave a gritty sort of edge to the tale. So, not one for the easily offended or weak-stomached, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):
NEXT SHORT STORY: Christmas In Silver Street, Michel Faber from the collection The Apple: Crimson Stories.