“Where once I had known only one word for mother, now there were two,” Inara Verzemnieks writes in her new memoir, “Among the Living and the Dead.” Following the collapse of her parents’ marriage — “a bitter coming-undone that had left both of them incapable of caring for [her]” — Verzemnieks, still an infant, is raised by her paternal grandmother, Livija, in Tacoma, Wash.
What develops between them is a bond strung hard and high by devotion on the grandmother’s part (“She was the one who said my name over and over again until it sounded like a song”) and by Verzemnieks’ growing curiosity in her grandmother’s past in Gulbene, a region “nestled at the edge of Latvia.”
From Livija, Verzemnieks learns about Latvian customs (“This is how I knew someone had died: my grandmother would pull her paring knife … and head to her garden to cut calla lilies, carrying them to the funeral cupped in the hollow of her hand”). She also learns about Lembi, her grandmother’s former home in Latvia, “the farm she had rebuilt from memory, like someone who believed that the structure of it could be protected, even saved, through … retelling.”
Spurred by Livija’s stories, Verzemnieks journeys to Latvia five years after Livija’s death to see “what history meant in flesh and blood.” There she meets and lives with Ausma, Livija’s sister, and in a retelling of her own, Verzemnieks is poetic, lacing one image over the other until the whole thing astounds, illuminating the past and present in wondrous ways. Of Lembi, long abandoned, she writes, “slowly, the roof rises above the grass line to meet us, though its edges sag, brushing the ground in places, like the hem of a skirt coming loose.”
In particularly harrowing chapters, we discover how the sisters, Livija and Ausma, became separated during World War II. As Russian soldiers advance on the Germans spreading terror, Livija flees Riga toward Germany, where her young family is finally granted asylum in America; Ausma, along with her mother and disabled brother, are sent to Siberia to work the cold, hard land.
Verzemnieks, a former journalist, is a gracious writer, inviting the readers on her journey into the past. Yet she does so with few guideposts along the way — the book lacks a table of contents and photographs, and its chapters have no titles, just Roman numerals, stark elements of the past. This gives the memoir’s progression, as it moves between present and past, an inscrutable feel, for better or worse. However, armed with her wealth of knowledge in Latvian history and myths, and her masterful and lush observations, Verzemnieks remains an able guide, earning our undivided attention and admiration.
Angela Ajayi’s work has appeared in Wild River Review, the Common Online and most recently in Fifth Wednesday Journal. She lives in Minneapolis.
Among the Living and the Dead
By: Inara Verzemnieks.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 282 pages, $26.95.