Review by Deborah S. Patz
Waiting for Stalin to Die by Irene Guilford is a touching and thoughtful novel about post-war immigrants from Lithuania living and settling in Toronto from 1949 to 1953. Irene Guilford is a Canadian author whose work has been shortlisted for both the CBC Literary Competition and the Event Creative Non-Fiction Contest. She is also the author of The Embrace, another novel concerning the Lithuanian experience of exile and immigration. Waiting for Stalin to Die is Guilford’s second fiction novel.
The journey is crafted from four short stories loosely and skilfully connected, told through more than a dozen perspectives. The multiple points of view do not distance the reader from the story; instead, they invite readers into the numerous homes, lives, and culture of a people who are displaced from their Lithuanian home but do not yet feel a part of Canada—a resonant and honest depiction of the immigrant experience.
There is a melancholic tone to the stories as each deftly created character grieves the losses that have brought them to where they are now: Vytas, the doctor who mourns his lost love left behind in Lithuania and now looks for comfort in his work; Martye who sacrifices much of her life and future for her brother; Justine who overcomes her harrowing exit journey and struggles to deal with the loss of music inside her; and Father Geras and his sister Birute, who each must find their own way to create new family and community in Canada. By the end there is delicate hope—a hope born from acceptance and from realistic choices based on life in a new world.
The prose is straightforward and beautifully written. Details abound of real Toronto locations, of home cooking and insightful habits: “They would never spend money on streetcar tickets for such a short distance. They had crossed Europe on foot and still had two good legs.” Through such evocative comparisons between old country and new, Guilford not only highlights tangible details of daily homesickness and alienation, but also smoothly weaves in references to orient the reader in historical time:
“Going out together, they did not hold hands in this most English city where friendly affection was not shown in the street. Men shook hands or lifted their hats. Women proffered white-gloved hands. And remembering Lithuania where women walked arm-in-arm, Birute missed the touch of bare hands and home.”
Given the current political climate and tensions around migration and refugee relocations, Guilford’s book feels timely. She takes us on a tender and compassionate exploration of the evolution of one thread of the multicultural fabric of Canada. We meet brave, memorable characters that are able to create a cultural kinship in their new land while holding fast to elements of their origins. They are characters that will linger with the reader long after the book is read.
Through the interconnected stories, the reader has many available routes to explore an understanding of the grief endured in the migration experience, either of their own ancestors or of new neighbours. Guilford’s work articulates the heartache found in waiting to return home, even though you know you never will.
Deborah (Deb) Patz is a Canadian author with an MFA in creative writing from UBC. She has won an award for creative nonfiction from TravelSaveLife magazine, and from her years in the entertainment industry, has published books and stories about film production for pros and teens. Find her here.