My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky – Red-Haired Tyrant On The Warpath

Cover of My Grandmother's Braid, a bittersweet novel by the Russian author Alina Bronsky, published by Europa

If you open My Grandmother’s Braid thinking to find a tale of a sweet old lady whose perfectly woven plait hangs down her back, within a few pages you’ll be forced to re-think those expectations.

The grandmother in Alina Bronsky’s novel is no lovable senior citizen. Margarita Ivanova, (Margo) is in fact a domestic tyrant, a forceful, stubborn Russian who barely has a good word to say about anyone and utterly dominates her meek husband Tschingis and grandson Max. It’s the red-haired former prima ballerina who takes all the decisions in this household.

Under the guise of an exaggerating a Jewish family connection Margo managed to get refugee status for the three of them so they could escape the crumbling Soviet Union for pastures new. Having arrived in Germany, she develops a strong aversion to the country’s inhabitants. In her eyes they’re untrustworthy, eat terrible food and their doctors and teachers are incompetent.

Much to Margo’s disgust she is housed in a crumbly apartment among other Jewish families. A confirmed anti-Semite, the only neighbours she will have anything to do with are two other Russian emigres, the piano teacher Nina and daughter Vera. She does however attend the synagogue and honours the Shabbat by coiling her (dyed) braid atop her head and adorning her best dress with silk flowers. It’s a pretence at confidence, her grandson senses, hiding her deep fear that one day she will be unmasked as an imposter and returned to the Soviet Union.

It’s six year old Max who narrates My Grandmother’s Braid and allows us to discover the story of this dysfunctional family. The poor kid has a miserable time of it because Margo is convinced that he is a sickly boy, prone to every possible germ and too fragile to be allowed to play outside the flat. She drags him from one doctor to another, becoming enraged when they disagree with her view of the boy’s health.

The boy suffers even more from her strict control of his diet. His digestive system cannot cope with rich foods she decides, so all he gets are steamed vegetables and plain barley and oats. His birthdays are a particular torment. Every year she presents him with a giant cake the boy knows he will never get to taste.

‘Take a good look at it from every angle. What do you think ? It tastes divine, you must believe me’. I believed her immediately without even asking if I could try a slice. I knew the answer so well that I could recite it to myself. ‘ Do you no longer need your pancreas? This kind of food is for normal people. You can eat it with your eyes, which is healthier anyway. You may also smell it.’ She dragged her finger across the cake plate and held a creamy dollop up to my nose.

Even when he has to start school, she won’t let the boy alone, insisting on sitting at the back of the classroom, from which position she interrupts his lesson with advice (usually incorrect) on how to solve his maths problems. Only when the school routine becomes boring does she cut Max a little slack and the boy can begin to develop a degree of independence.

My Grandmother’s Braid is one of those novels where the reader knows and understands more than the narrator who is meant to be our guide. Poor Max initially accepts everything his grandmother tells him but as readers we question her behaviour and spot the inconsistencies in the version she gives Max about his background.

As time passes (it’s not always easy to keep track of the timeline) he begins to question her view of the world and to gain a greater understanding of what’s going on around them. In fact it’s Max who suspects his grandfather is having an affair with the neighbour.

My Grandmother’s Braid is a fabulous study of a character who is thoroughly distasteful in her prejudiced attitudes and self-centred behaviour. it’s hard to feel any sympathy for her for much of the time yet we come to find that there is a sadness in past life that might explain her harsh persona. Even if we cannot forgive the way she treats her grandson, we do at least come to understand it. And to recognise that she is capable of love, though it might be shown in strange ways.

This is a novel that surprises us on more than one level. It’s often very funny albeit sometimes the laughter comes accompanied by rolling eyes. Its also very tender in the way it shows a young boy trying to emerge from his grandmother’s shadow and discovering the secrets of his family.

A bitter-sweet tale that was an unexpected delight.

 

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky: Endnotes

Alina Bronsky was born in Yekaterinburg, an industrial town at the foot of the Ural Mountains in central Russia. She moved to Germany when she was thirteen. Her first novel, Broken Glass Park, was nominated for one of Europe’s most prestigious literary awards, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. A later novel, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, which was named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year.

My Grandmother’s Braid, translated into English by Tim Mohr was published by the independent press, Europa Editions, in 2021. My copy came via a subscription to the Asymptote Book Club.

I’m counting this book towards my European Reading Challenge 21 hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

11 thoughts on “My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky – Red-Haired Tyrant On The Warpath

  • June 12, 2021 at 4:35 pm
    Permalink

    Hahaha I can see where that expectation would make sense, but how delightful that it was overturned in such a memorable way. I’ve not read this, or her more recent books, but I did love her first (coming-of-age) novel, which also featured a sassy and prickly main character!

    Reply
  • June 8, 2021 at 6:42 am
    Permalink

    Wonderful review! Margo isn’t a character I’ll forget anytime soon!

    Reply
    • June 8, 2021 at 10:40 am
      Permalink

      That’s so true. Those are the best books for me, the ones that linger long after you finish reading

      Reply
  • June 7, 2021 at 9:20 pm
    Permalink

    Oh wow, this sounds a real treat, something to get one’s literary teeth into. Thanks for drawing attention to this novel.

    Reply
    • June 7, 2021 at 10:31 pm
      Permalink

      The Asymptote subscription often delivers books that are exceptional and which I wouldn’t have come across otherwise

      Reply
  • June 6, 2021 at 9:09 pm
    Permalink

    I was very excited to see your review as I absolutely loved Alina Bronsky’s novel “The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine,” which I read a few years ago (I have Braid and Broken Glass Park currently sitting unread on the shelves). Like Braid, Tartar Cuisine has an iron-willed matriarch and monstrous mother who manages to get her dysfunctional family to the west through some highly dubious means. It also has one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve come across in quite some time, a great deal of humor interlaced with some truly appalling behavior, sharp observations of human nature and a definite bittersweet quality. I have so many other things to read I put Grandmother’s Braid aside, but your review reminds me of how much I enjoyed Brosky’s earlier novel; perhaps I’ll move Braid up on my list!

    Reply
    • June 7, 2021 at 3:38 am
      Permalink

      It sounds as if food is a bit of a preoccupation in this one too…

      Reply
    • June 7, 2021 at 8:19 am
      Permalink

      Tartar Cuisine sounds fabulous. Having enjoyed Bronsky’s writing in Braid, I’m keen to read more by her. I wonder what the story is behind her portrayal of these domineering matriarchs – personal experience maybe? Or someone she knew?

      Reply
  • June 6, 2021 at 7:13 pm
    Permalink

    I’ve heard good things about this, despite (or maybe because of?) the difficult central character. She certainly sounds like an unforgettable creation!

    Reply
    • June 7, 2021 at 8:20 am
      Permalink

      She does jump off the page – a very well constructed character.

      Reply

We're all friends here. Come and join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: