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