THE PLOT: Black Tea is a memoir that recounts an Englishman’s love affair with Russia. In the 70’s, Stephen Morris grows up with a map of the USSR on his wall. He’s fascinated by the country and makes his first trip in the Spring of 1989, mere months before protests begin to rock the whole of Eastern Europe. He meets his future wife, Lyuba, and travels across swathes of the country throughout the next thirty years. The book goes backwards and forwards in time, recounting the changes in the country and the changes in his relationship with the love of his life.
RATING: I’ve given this memoir three and a half stars, although I must caveat that I know the author! It’s written by my friends’ father so I know the family well (none of the names are changed) and may have a pre-disposition to like this book. That said, I felt it explored romantic relationships and family dynamics nicely. Also, I’ve been fascinated by Russian history since studying the Cold War at school, so I appreciated the historical and geographical detail which weaves through the main storyline.
GOOD BITS: There’s great subtlety in how the romantic relationship between Stephen and Lyuba breaks down. It’s about the slow attrition of marriage over the years rather than a traumatic event that shatters them apart. The book’s theme of identity is its strongest aspect, whether that’s of the author or Russia itself. From Crimean beaches, to vast fields of black earth seen from a train, and crunchy snow on top of the Caucasus mountains, there’s a lot of beautiful description that encapsulates the identity of the country.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: As a lover of a good yarn, I wanted more information about how Stephen and Lyuba fell in love. The magic of their early relationship is captured in bitesize chunks but I wanted a meatier description of their life together. Similarly, I wanted to know a bit more about the characters. In novels, authors have to exaggerate each character trait and I think this memoir suffered a bit from realism. For example, the scenes with the children would have more tension if Daisy’s eagerness to please and Miles’ spoiled sulkiness were heightened.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this memoir for anyone who is interested in Russia and the history of the Cold War. It reminded me of Laurie Lee’s memoir of the Spanish Civil War in content and style. As much as Black Tea is a commentary on contemporary Russia, it’s a rumination on the nature of change. Change is an immutable fact of human life and central to our concept of time. We desperately try to cling onto a moment or feeling only to have it inevitably slip away. But there’s something beautiful in change that the book describes exquisitely.