Introducing a brand new title in translation: The Raven’s Children by Yulia Yakovleva, translated from Russian by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (Puffin).
This book looks so appealing. The artwork on the cover is bold and to add to it, the edges of the pages are red which makes it really distinctive.
The story centres around Shura, a seven-year-old, whose life in 1930s Leningrad is thrown into turmoil when his parents and younger brother disappear one night. Shura and his sister are left alone and are turned away by every adult that they seek help from. Their home and belongings are appropriated by others as they are chased off and become almost invisible. Shura resolves to find his parents.
The first part of the book is quite mischievous in places and highlights the innocence of children. Shura is oblivious to many of the dangers surrounding him and announces proudly to the world: “My papa’s gone away on a business trip! He was called urgently!”, which the listening world interprets as “The Black Raven came for our neighbour last night”.
Another poignant moment is where a neighbour hands over a purse containing “over a hundred roubles”, which the children’s mother has left for them. Shura and Tanya are initially confused and believe they have been left this money so they can go out and enjoy themselves. They resolve to go out for breakfast and then to the cinema. As an adult reading this, it really tugged at my heart strings knowing that the world as they knew it was soon to come to an end as they realised how serious their situation was.
In the second half of the book, Shura has been captured and imprisoned with many other children. Their heads are shaved and we read of the conditions he and the other children are kept in. The tone of the book becomes much more serious as Shura begins to follow the routine imposed on him, forgetting his previous life. A chance event, however, reawakens his memory and he takes an opportunity to escape. But it’s still not plain sailing and Shura has to overcome both physical and mental challenges to rescue his little brother.
The imagery in this book is really evocative. Ears and eyes appear and disappear in walls, visualising the idea of being watched and listened to. I loved the bit where a lady stuffs breadcrumbs into one of the ears in order to muffle their voices. It does deal with quite a dark subject and, at times, it feels quite scary, as indeed living in such a place at this time must have been. Along with the eyes and ears, the author also uses elements of magic realism with Shura and Tanya able to communicate with talking birds and rats.
I particularly liked the note from the translator at the back where we are given some more information about the process of how to present such a story to a readership with little or no knowledge of these events. I can also imagine the discussion questions included being useful to use as a launchpad for discussion about this period and the book.