Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva review – romance in Biarritz

Sex and death push the story towards its tragic conclusion

This enthralling novel, translated into English for the first time, was originally published in Russian, in Paris in 1929 – a product of the remarkable flourishing of émigré culture in the French capital, where many Russians settled after fleeing the communist regime.

Isolde follows 14-year-old Liza on holiday in Biarritz, where she attracts the attention of an older English boy. He falls in love with her, and insists on calling her “Isolde”; she enjoys the freedom afforded by his ready cash and Buick, but returns to her own “Tristan” back in Paris.

Odoevtseva gives a compellingly conflicted portrait of her Isolde. She is poised between girlhood and womanhood, enjoying the thrill of champagne and the power of her burgeoning beauty, while longing to be nurtured by a painfully absent mother. Liza is also torn, as an exile, between a deep-seated yearning for Russia and the need to make a new home abroad. The plot is powered by the opposing Freudian drives of sex and death, which push the story towards its tragic conclusion as Liza becomes embroiled in the dark machinations of others.

Isolde, translated by Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg, is published by Pushkin (£12). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Emily Rhodes

The GuardianTramp

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