Russia embraces a changing future in this latest effort by Gillian Slovo. In 1934, the Revolution has arrived and with it equality for the comrades of the new Stalinist regime. In the spirit of scientific discovery, an expedition is sent to the Arctic, along the coast of Siberia and back, a ship carrying supplies to the waiting scientists.
One of the crew of the supply ship is Irina Davydovna, a cleaning woman encouraged to go on the expedition by Boris Aleksandrovich, a powerful bureaucrat. When the ship is trapped in the ice, slowly squeezed between the massive floes, Irina remains stoic and dutiful. The author perfectly captures Irina's sense of isolation, the eerie crackling of the ice pressing against the ship and the helplessness of their predicament in this indifferent world: "I have grown heavy with hope and with belief. I have dared to dream." Most of the crew is saved, including Irina, although the ship is lost to the depths of the ocean.
Throughout the novel, Irina brilliantly reports her observations of the characters, finding employment in the household of Anton Antonovich Abramov, once a close friend of Boris Aleksandrovich, and his adopted daughter. Although the orphan child, Anya, never warms to her more welcoming circumstances, Irina is content to have a place in the home of a respected man after the terrifying, near-fatal experience in the Arctic.
Irina witnesses the metamorphosis of her nation. These are dangerous times, neighbor spying on neighbor as those of questionable motives join the ranks of the disappeared. The vital Natasha, daughter of Boris Aleksandrovich Ivanov, is in the bloom of youth, beautiful and covertly watched by many male admirers, and her father's favorite child. She is in love with a simple man, the hard-working Kolya; they wed with her father's permission. After the couple is married and has a child, Katya, Kolya is arrested.
Natasha is a social outcast, bereft, her life now precarious. To protect her future and that of her child, Natasha marries the jealous, uninspired Dmitry Fedorovich, an apt example of the inflexible Stalinist regime. Desperately unhappy, Natasha agonizes over Kolya's fate but is equally terrified of her husband's enmity. In distress, Natasha turns to her friend Irina, who has been living alone with Anya since Anton's untimely death.
As Russia hurtles towards its date with destiny, the Germans mass on the Russian border. Leningrad prepares for a devastating siege, and soldiers dig trenches to protect the city from assault. As a flustered bureaucracy is decimated by those who flee from the city, the great experiment is in turmoil, unprepared, without provisions in a brutal winter.
With uncanny insight, Slovo defines society through the eyes of the women in this vast, white world where ideas are as rigid as the ice-covered terrain. The women reflect the true changes in society, dismissing their former passivity. Irina and Natasha form a bond that sustains them where others, fathers, husbands, have failed. Slovo's characters are surrounded by peril, betrayal and intrigue, but when survival is at stake, the women breathe life into the future, buoyed by loyalty and compassion.