Where the idea for the story came from
My first idea was to write about people who’ve lost their homeland, and how that loss affects the way they feel and behave. That’s why I made my main character, Inna, a young refugee from anti-Semitic brutality.
Ever since I was a reporter covering conflicts in the former Russian empire and elsewhere in the world, I’ve been fascinated by the resilience and courage with which people forced out of their homes by violence or need adapt and reshape their lives in new settings. London, where I live today, is full of people escaping the difficulties of life back home somewhere, some of them what our government calls “economic migrants,” or people in search of work, a safe home and a better life somewhere new, others refugees who have fled actual war. Russia and the CIS, where I used to work in the 1990s, was a mass of outbreaks of ethnic and communal violence, as well as of people on the move in an attempt to find work and keep their families from hunger. Chechens escaping the war back home were always trying to get to safety with their relatives in Moscow or elsewhere in Russia, but being turned back by officials keen to keep them contained in their terrifying ethnic homeland. Almost every builder and street sweeper in Moscow seemed to be a migrant worker from Central Asia; that they were routinely beaten up by Moscow cops on the way to mail their wages home to their families, and had few real rights, deterred none of them. Back home in Tajikistan, meanwhile, you’d be hard pressed to find a single man among the surreally women-only crowds in streets and shops and offices. However hard the officials tried to keep them away, the migrants just kept going where they’d have a chance of surviving. I couldn’t help sympathising with people who must, with good reason, feel so alone and unprotected. Nor could I help admiring their underdog courage and determination to survive, especially once I’d seen with my own eyes some of the horrors they’d left behind.
So, when I started thinking about this story, I knew I wanted to write a book about someone with an impossible past, someone squeezed out of one life and trying to start again in a new place – about the burst of almost insane determination that would propel them into a new orbit somewhere else, and, also, once they were safely there, about the residual fear that would then keep them quiet and panicky, for many years afterwards, fearing that one wrong word or one wrong thought might expose them, and put them back into danger. I wanted to describe the loneliness of that, and look at how difficult it is to break through that second-stage timidity and, eventually, get your courage back to live life to the full and know your own mind and heart. At the beginning of my story, for instance, my heroine, as she flees from a possible pogrom, fears for her life; but, even after reaching safety in St Petersburg, she continues, for a long time, to fear both being noticed and, paradoxically, being left alone.
Making Inna Jewish in Russia on the eve of revolution a century ago (an oppressed minority if ever there was one) made telling her story easier. I felt that this “neutral” historical context would sidestep the often toxic platitudes of the contemporary debate about refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants.
But that was only the beginning. Because once I’d started writing about Inna, I found I was getting much, much closer to her story. I ended up by putting a lot of other things that felt very personal to me into it. I come from a family of musicians, so the fictional family of music-loving instrument-makers I was describing, the Lemans, felt close. I grew up playing the violin, though I gave it up, so I made Inna a (much better) violinist; and, to make sure I knew what I was talking about while describing her violin-shop “new family” and her apprenticeship as a violin-maker, I’ve been learning to make a violin myself, at a workshop in 21st-century Cambridge. I’ve spent years in Russia, and read a lot of Russian novels and history books; so I added a bit of what I’ve learned from them into the mix. St Petersburg, and the real-life family I always stayed with while there, felt like a second home and family, (though of course they weren’t, quite, because I was also a kind of migrant, and eternal outsider, while living in Russia, even if I was the lucky sort whom no one persecuted) … so in went the streets and palaces and rivers of my favourite city, too. Yasha, the tempestuous Jewish activist, is, at least in my mind, not unrelated to various friends of my own, people with strong political views. And, last but not least, I put in a relative – my own great-great uncle, who worked in Russia before the Revolution, painting miniatures for Faberge the jeweller – as one of the three main characters.
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