Sophia Shalmiyev’s Unbelievable Instincts

The New York Times was Wrong About Mother Winter

It’s strange, the three books Alexandra Fuller chose to publicly stab through the spine in the New York Times last week. They don’t have a lot in common. They are all three women’s memoirs, and I’ve read only one of them: Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter. I know a little bit about Reema Zaman’s work, and I suspect her memoir is going to be another Big Magic. Pam Houston simply isn’t for everybody—I respect her as a writer and particularly as a teacher, but I’ve never latched on to her books. Shalmiyev’s book reaches rare feats of lyricism and collage, comparable to Kate Zambreno but with more muttering and pacing. Why Fuller chose to group these three is beyond me.

Mother Winter tells a story that verges on unbelievable. Sophia was raised in Soviet Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again), her parents astonishingly neglectful, her environment one of deprivation that contemporary Americans will have a hard time getting their heads around. Her mother vanished from her life because of addiction and general depravity just before Sophia and her father emigrated to America, after which she sort of got on the path to a normal Western adulthood. That path took her through drugs, peep-show stripping, and a lot of murky rooms before she found herself married and a mother twice over.

Photo of Sophia Shalmiyev by Thomas Teal.

Shalmiyev’s body tells the story of Mother Winter. It speaks its own language to the reader, through both its own motherhood and its animal yearning for someone to mother it. Every memory, every detail, is filtered through a body experience, even jars of preserves: “No, there was a shelf to the left as you left. It stealthily held our winter hopes in jars. The sours. The bitters. The salts. The brines.” I suspect that the poeticism of Shalmiyev’s work disguises a less-than-reliable memory. The narrative has little logical or chronological order. Even in ordinary language it would be a difficult story to follow, but no matter. It’s a book full of sensation, and small polygons of meaning, rather than a linear story.

Especially toward the end, Mother Winter takes extraordinary risks for a book from a mainstream publisher:

Mike is not coming home from school until later and I feed the kids the old soup. Save the chops for another day, since they will just suck on the bone and mush the rest to meat juice. Their teeth are like magnets, which are sacred and holy and keep us going round. My stepmother has used magnets on her ailing joints and brittle bones.

That’s a single paragraph, one joined with Shalmiyev’s instincts rather than narrative cogency, and man, are her instincts incredible to watch at work. Mother Winter’s most distinct pleasure is Shalmiyev’s authority as a writer, on a language level and in her capacity for assemblage. Whatever Fuller was looking for from this memoir, in the course of not finding it, she missed a hell of a book.


(Simon & Schuster, Feb. 12, 2019)
Mother Winter by Shalmiyev (Simon & Schuster, Feb. 12, 2019)

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Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, BUST, the Rumpus, and elsewhere.

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