Independent book review: Still Life with Memories series



By Uvi Poznansky

I have recently discovered the books of Uvi Poznansky, and she has written a remarkable series of books. Together, they tell one unified story, but from multiple points of view. The author does a remarkable job of capturing each individual voice

Still Life with Memories is about Lenny and Natasha Kaminsky, and about the way Natasha’s illness affects the whole family over a long time.

Natasha is a concert pianist and composer, hailed as a genius, and Lenny a soldier and intelligence operative.

They meet and fall in love, and Lenny says he cannot believe his luck when Natasha accepts his proposal of marriage. After the war, they return to the States and settle in Santa Monica, California. Natasha tries to re-start her music career, but shelves it when she becomes pregnant.

She becomes a piano teacher while Lenny pursues his own career, and Natasha’s enormous white piano fills up most of the living room in their small apartment.

But before many years pass, Lenny starts to notice something is wrong with Natasha. She has increasing memory lapses, which also affect her playing. Gradually, she loses the ability to play the piano. Lenny becomes despondent over the gaps Natasha’s memory and the damage it inflicts on their relationship. Lenny begins recording interviews with Natasha, then transcribing them in an effort to write a book about their life together.

Then he meets Anita, a teenaged girl who looks astonishingly like a young Natasha. Anita sets her sights on him as her best chance for a better life than her mother could give, and Lenny falls for her. Natasha, as fragile as she is, leaves Lenny, but seems to come back more than once.

 

But when Lenny makes Anita pregnant, the marriage is over. Not only does Natasha leave Lenny for good, so does their son, Ben, who is one year older than Anita.

The most remarkable thing about Poznansky’s series is that she tells it from different points of view.

Anita, who first appears in Lenny’s life as a teacher, is the narrator of book 1, My Own Voice. In Book 2, The White Piano, Ben, Lenny’s son is the PoV character. Lenny then takes over the narrating for the rest of the series, and we get to put the pieces together of Natasha’s real story.

Natasha is the most interesting character in the series. She’s a highly talented artist and, it turns out, was resourceful and effective during the war. The way that the author slowly reveals her story is sometimes anguishing, sometimes teasing, but always fascinating.

And the author perfectly captures each PoV character’s voice as she does this: the calculating other woman, the angry son, the guilt-ridden husband.

Still Life with Memories also reveals the ephemera quality of memory, through the differences in details that each character remembers about their interactions.

Battered by fate

Poznansky shows how each of us tries to be master of our own fate, but we are at the same time victims of an often cruel universe, dealing with things that we could never have seen coming. In book 4, Marriage Before Death, Lenny wonders how it is that some of the soldiers on the battlefield die, while other survive, and whether his time is up. And in other volumes, he tries to make a new life for himself and his family, but suffers setback after setback. When Anita finds him, he seems powerless to turn  her away, even though he tries.

Anita is more skilled or talented at surfing the maelstrom of life. She rises from an impoverished single-parent household, without much education, and catches a successful man—one who can give her things she could only dream of as a girl.

Ben recoils when he learns of his father’s affair with a girl younger than himself, drops out of school and leaves for Rome. When he returns, he also finds attracted drawn against his will to Anita, the woman who replaced his mother in many ways.

A couple of flaws

I find myself equally unable to resist Poznansky’s storytelling style. While she perfectly captures each character’s individuality, at the same time she writes in a style that seems at once fresh and old-fashioned. She has, I think, also captured a prewar literary voice that is refreshingly distinct from the mass-produced style you can find in today’s commercial bestsellers.

But the books are not quite perfect. There are a couple of flaws.

First, Lenny seems to be an incompetent intelligence operative. In Marriage Before Death, he wanders behind enemy lines with ease with little purpose or mission, and gets caught almost immediately.

Also, the timing seems a little off. If Lenny is in his 20s during the war—and it seems he is—then I’m having trouble working out the timing for when he meets Anita in Santa Monica. She describes Lenny as being in his 40s, so that would take us to the mid-sixties or at best early 70s. However, Anita plays a song from “the sixties” as if it were really old. Somehow, the timing just seems a little off there.

Overall

This is a wonderful series, a richly colourful portrait of the intersecting, overlapping and mutually supportive and destructive lives. It portrays the intricate relationships of family, of the ways we intentionally and unintentionally hurt the people we love, and how what we do to each other ultimately creates the people they, and we are. It’s not quite perfect, but then neither are we.

Well done, Ms. Poznansky

4*

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