If there are a couple of things you can be guaranteed with a Andrei Makine book it is beautiful descriptions of the Russian countryside and a focus on a personal story that acts as a metaphor for what has happened to an entire country.
Both of those features are present in the Woman who Waited but there is some masterly story telling going on here. The narrator is a player in the vivid student scene in Leningrad and after graduating he heads out to the wilderness looking for a village to provide him with literary inspiration.
His initial thoughts are that he can produce a satirical novel based on the peasants but the life in the abandoned villages is far from humorous and then his attention wanders to focus on the story of Vera who apparently has been waiting for her lover to return from the second world war for thirty years.
Her reputation in the village and surrounding area is almost legendary and the narrator starts to get closer to making her acquaintance. The problem is he does so taking a superior position. What could this woman in the wilderness be able to teach or show an intellectual from a major city? What could her life story provoke other than sympathy?
Because the approach taken to Vera is subtle you never notice that the narrator is completely on the wrong track about her until she opens her mouth and reveals she is not a village idiot or someone who has stayed waiting all of her life. In the end the shock of those discoveries starts to force the narrator to ask some questions about himself but he runs away from it rather than facing that conversation.
Makine is almost like a short story writer weaving deep and thought provoking stories out of just a handful of characters and locations. Vera the woman remains nearly as much of a mystery at the end with the narrator having discovered some secrets but missed out on others because of his arrogant assumptions.
It shows the difference between attitudes in the town and country in Russia as well as the differences between those keen to move on and forget the war and those who cannot. That seems to be a recurring theme in nearly all of his books because the devastation visited on a generation seems to be conveniently filed away by many characters in his books.
Ultimately the truth about Vera emerges in fragments and just as he has done all along the narrator misjudges her intentions completely having the arrogance to assume that she will come to rely on him. Once she realises that her lover is never coming back and he has created a life without her she seems set on living her life on her own terms. The narrator is used to plug a need to express some grief but he is never seriously being seen as a replacement for her love.
His arrogance that led him to believe Vera was a limited school teacher, someone who had never ventured out of the village and someone in need of an emotional prop are all revealed to be wrong and in the end he runs away rather than staying to really unravel the mystery of this woman who has waited for something for so long.
Version read – Sceptre hardback