Woman in Bronze

By complete coincidence, a large number of the books that I read in the summer of 2005 (borrowed from my mother, who worked at a library at the time but is also a bit of a library unto herself) were stories of love in a time of war. This post, and the three to follow, look at four of those books.

Woman in Bronze by Antanas SileikaFirst up: Antanas Sileika’s Woman in Bronze.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Woman in Bronze is Sileika’s ability to craft vivid, substantial impressions of distinct times and places. Opening in the early days of World War I in Lithuania, Sileika treats his readers to a fascinating glimpse of a country on the verge of an incredible transition. Sileika shows us a society that had changed little since the middle ages, peopled by peasant farmers and ruled by folklore, mysticism and feudalism — dragged abruptly, alongside the rest of Europe, straight into the height of the Modern age.

Protagonist Tomas Strumbas is a god-maker — a wood carver who creates the holy icons treasured by his peasant countrymen. And after his love affair with a local girl comes to a tragic end, Tomas leaves home to immerse himself in his first and indeed most enduring love — sculpture. In fact, the second great strength of this story is Sileika’s precise understanding of a variety of complex art-making techniques and, more importantly, his ability to impart to the reader what it feels like to be an artist, and to have so much of your heart and soul caught up in the struggle to transform your vision, through talent and technique, into something tangible and, even more precious: something that matches that fleeting vision.

Tomas’ journey brings him to Paris in the 1920s, where he makes a place for himself in both the art and dancehall scenes — another snapshot of a fascinating time and place. Surrounded by sin, temptation and the chance to actually fulfill his potential, Tomas learns to stop undercutting himself. He is on the cusp of great things, until the ghosts of his past — and a disappointing betrayal — threaten to overwhelm him. Tomas can’t seem to catch a break, but with a denoument that manages to be simultaneously bleak and hopeful, the reader is left with the sense that this has still been a journey worth taking.

From the archives, written August 6th, 2005.

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