Rating: 4 / 5
Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter is the deeply personal explorative memoir of Shalmiyev’s lifelong desire to know and understand her mother.
Endless thanks to Simon Books for sending this advanced copy!
Sophia was born into poverty in Soviet-era Russia, and into a painfully difficult childhood. Her mother, Elena, abused alcohol and was soon stripped of her parental custody. Her father, Gabriel, was well-intentioned but neglectful, forcing Sophia to fend for herself and attempt to be her own caretaker – both physically and emotionally.
Elena was elusive and inconsistent, reaching into Sophia’s life sporadically during her childhood, only to let her down or disappear again. Gabriel remarried, a woman named Luda, only twelve years older than Sophia. When Sophia most needed a mother figure, she instead received a sister and a rival of her father’s attention. All of these factors and more solidified Sophia’s lifelong desire to be loved and cared for in a way that only a mother can.
Mother Winter is the acutely intimate retelling of Sophia’s life – the good, the bad, and the painfully ugly. Living in Russia, and then immigrating to the United States, she tells of a homeland that no longer exists, as well as a mother that may as well no longer exist. Shalmiyev muses about feminism – a movement in which she has found pseudo-mothers, childhood and motherhood, and poverty and prosperity. Mother Winter is a coming-of-age, a feminist manifesto, and a telling of what happens when what you don’t have becomes the only thing you ever needed.
Please take caution while reading Mother Winter if any of the following topics may trigger you:
- Sexual assault / rape
- Child abuse / pedophilia
- Death / dying
- Pregnancy / childbirth
- Miscarriages / abortion
Mother Winter is not simply a book; it is a piece of art. Shalmiyev’s writing fluctuates between a conversational prose and borderline poetry, allowing for both deep musings about life and practical and straight-forward storytelling. Her life is nothing short of fascinating and heartbreaking, and you will be engrossed in the traumatic experiences of her childhood, the hope and liberation of her teens and twenties, and the quiet revolution of her life as a mother – and through it all, the deep desire for a mother of her own.
This is by far one of the most difficult books I’ve read, for a few reasons. First, the writing is at such a high level. Shalmiyev has a huge vocabulary and isn’t afraid to use it. I looked up many a word I’d never heard before, which pushed me to both learn new words and think critically about what I’m reading. Further, Shalmiyev uses the pages of her memoir to ponder very abstract ideas, pulling in examples that resonate with her but that were confusing for me at first pass. All of this is to say that Shalmiyev’s heart and mind are utterly dripping from every page of her memoir, and it is our job as readers to sit with it, think critically about it, and finally understand her message. This is not a light and easy read by any stretch of the imagination.
Yes – you will work your ass off while reading Mother Winter, but you’ll get so much payoff in the form of a moving and shockingly personal memoir surely unlike anything you’ve read before. I highly recommend Mother Winter to lovers of memoirs, beautiful prose, and feminist musings.
Thank you so much for reading my thoughts on Mother Winter. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the memoir in the comments or at my Instagram, @bookmarkedbya.