What is a twentieth-century story? There are plenty of them and many are tangled in a web of violence, uncertainty, loss and disorientation that anyone forced to cope with the century in the wrong place at the wrong time will have experienced. The gulf between private life and public sphere has been eroded by total war, civil war, forced migration, state oppression, expropriation and impoverishment, often on a colossal scale. Only remarkable luck will have earned absolute immunity from the rigours of the age. The three characters at the heart of this absorbing family narrative had less of it than they needed.
The family in question is the Eitingon clan, a Russian-Jewish family from the Tsarist Pale of Settlement in what is now called Belarus. Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, is a direct descendant on her mother’s side of the Eitingons. She was brought up in