Saturday 18 April 2015

Ella Leya - The Orphan Sky, a brilliant first novel

One of the hits of this year's Jewish book week, Ella Leya is an accomplished musician playing both jazz and classical music. The Orphan Sky is an excellent first novel capturing the complicated manoeuvrings of life in the final decade of the Soviet Union through the experiences of Leila Badalbeili, a talented young pianist from Baku, Azerbaijan.

The book captures the atmosphere of Baku's old city with its narrow lanes, sites and smells, and most of all its iconic Maiden Tower. The Tower is the source of many stories, some of which overlap with Leila's own experiences as she navigates her way through her teenage years, discovering art, music and even love - much of which is forbidden during the Soviet period in which the story is set. 

Leila is a committed member of the Komsomol, the Communist youth organisation, but becomes disillusioned after meeting Tahir, a young man from the once prominent Mukhtarov family who introduces her to a world beyond that permitted by the authorities. Gradually, she begins to see and understand the deceit, corruption and hypocrisy inherent in the Soviet regime with party officials lining their own pockets whilst others live in poverty. This extends all the way to her beloved father, who moves in the upper levels of Soviet Azeri society, and who she realises is not above receiving bribes in return for favours. Her awareness of how deceitful those in authority are grows until she discovers her father's ultimate betrayal, which I won't reveal here (!), but which results in a series of catastrophic events leading all the way to the final denouement and a kind of deliverance.

The Orphan Sky has a wonderful cast of characters. Our heroine Leila wins our support, respect and sympathy but, happily, is no angel herself, making mistakes and compromises as she struggles between the urge to survive and the desire not to compromise herself. Her best friend Almaz is both survivor and victim whilst Sonia, her mother, is a brilliant surgeon but turns a blind eye to her husband's indiscretions even when they come very close to home. I especially liked her music teacher, Professor Sultan-zade, initially drawn as a cold, stern character but who is developed through the course of the story as considered, capable and eminently human and who also has emotions. The female characters demonstrate very clearly the position of many women in Soviet society who had to live up to the requirements of both the regime and more traditional roles assigned to women in some cultures and communities. 

I visited Azerbaijan in 2012 and The Orphan Sky took me back there, especially to Icheri Sheher, the old city of Baku. Indeed, it made me want to visit again. Ella Leya's love for music is displayed throughout the book, through her descriptions of Leila's performances, immersing the reader in emotional journeys through pieces by Mozart and Rachmaninov using references to art, the elements and to the music of Billie Holiday in order to convey her feelings. This is no surprise given her own jazz background and that rhere is a bit of a jazz tradition in Azerbaijan.  During the Soviet period it was seen as the music of dissent. The great Azerbaijani jazz pianist Vagif Mustafazade who suffered at the hands of the Soviet regime is now revered and his former home is a museum. The book also contains many references to traditional Azeri poems and lyrics and to the traditional Azeri mugham form of music. 

Ella Leya was born in Baku and received asylum in the United States in 1990. She lives between Laguna beach in california and London-  where she is the wife of a rabbi! You can find out more about her music here.

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