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Home economics

THE CHRISTENING by Denise Neuhaus, Faber pounds 8.99

WHEN Communists illegally occupied the Baltic, the West raised an eyebrow, but over a blind eye. To what extent Estonia co-existed with the Soviet regime is a theme Denise Neuhaus has explored deeply - not least through the testimony of her Estonian husband's family - interweaving it with a story about the power of blood-ties and economics.

Neuhaus's characters reflect the political dynamics of the times. In 1973, a christening takes place in Estonia to which the baby's mother is not invited. It has been decided that 20-year-old Helena, with education, good looks, modest wealth, connections and a husband, should be the mother to the illegitimate baby Maarja whom she takes off to air-freshened Sweden for a lifetime of capitalistic opportunities.

Meanwhile, her 17-year-old second cousin Piret, the baby's true mother, is without husband, parental support, beauty, money or opportunity and so has been coerced by family, mainly patriarchal, pressure to surrender her child for the good of the fittest. As Helena later remorsefully explains to Maarja, "You see, Piret had nothing and we had everything. We thought we could do whatever we wanted."

Though no Marxist, the girls' great aunt Lydia has seen the inequity from their infancies and is now determined to redistribute the riches: "I will not let Piret get nothing," she vows, foisting upon the girl an application from the Central Committee's Ministry of Education to continue her schooling. This leads unexpectedly, but believably the way Neuhaus tells it, on to a dazzling career in theoretical economics. In finding a benevolent but strict parent in the Soviet educational system, Piret blooms in the life of the mind.

But this is also a novel of cunning plot. While Piret's opportunities wax under Communism and Helena's are curiously diminished in the West, the author marshals her ironies for the further twists of fortune which make her storytelling always something to relish. The KGB lurks in wait to make use of family secrets both in Sweden and Estonia; the USSR totters, then collapses; a girl grows up unaware of her true parentage, but is drawn through a love of history to her roots.

Neuhaus is struck by the charades of Soviet occupation: the parade in Estonian national costume led by a banner of Lenin, the paying to Estonians of three days' wages to whoop it up on May Day for international cameras. She opens up questions at political, economic and personal levels with conviction and panache, showing that people blunder at all these levels but, seen through the eyes of such an imaginative and informed chronicler, they produce marvellous stories along the way.

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