Lovers separated by the Iron Curtain
Two women whose paths should never have crossed
A remarkable journey that changes all of their lives
Maria's history is a lie. Washed up on the shores of Sweden in 1944 with no memory, she was forced to create her own.
Half a century later she still has no idea of her true identity.
Jaak fights for Estonia's independence, refusing to accept the death of his fiancee, Maarja, whose ship was sunk as she fled across the Baltic Sea to escape the Soviet invasion.
Angie knows exactly who she is. A drug addict. A waste of space. Life is just about getting by.
A chance meeting in Edinburgh's Cancer Centre is the catalyst for something very different.
Sometimes all you need is someone who listens.
Linda's Book Bag
Maria’s life is about to change.
Given that I usually don’t enjoy stories with multiple perspectives and different time frames I think it speaks volumes for F J Curlew’s The Unravelling of Maria that I loved this book because the beautiful quality of the writing drew me in and held my attention completely. By the end of the book I had been so captivated by the stories of Maria, Angie and Jaak that I was extremely moved.
Those different timeframes and perspectives are elegantly wrought into a beautiful narrative that is part history, part love story, part tale of endurance and suffering and part love letter to Estonia. There’s such a poetic beauty to F J Curlew’s descriptions, even when she is uncovering the less glamorous side to Edinburgh or conflict, that never becomes hyperbole, but rather touches each of the reader’s senses and immerses them in the settings and story. I was incredibly impressed. The Unravelling of Maria also made me feel quite ignorant. Shamefully, I had no real concept of Estonia’s history and in reading The Unravelling of Maria I feel I have been cleverly educated as well as entertained.
The plot is perfectly balanced because The Unravelling of Maria illustrates horror and joy, love and hate, inhumanity and compassion with such finesse that it feels as if the reader is living the lives of the three main characters with them. The structure has an almost Shakespearean quality to it, as if the book is in acts. I found the tension in the narrative almost too great to bear at times, but Angie’s dialect and accent serves as light relief so that I thoroughly enjoyed every word. Indeed, I usually find accents contrived but Angie’s Scottish brogue is perfectly accessible whilst adding depth and colour to her character.
All three main characters are so, so real. They have depth and flaws that bring them alive. My heart went out to Angie who illustrates perfectly how sometimes, all we need is a chance. Jaak had my empathy and my sympathy but it was Maria’s story that touched me most. Her resilience, her bravery and her search for identity both literally and metaphorically is presented by F J Curlew with real humanity.
I hadn’t really thought much about The Unravelling of Maria before I began reading, so I didn’t really have any expectations. However, I found a meticulously researched, beautifully written saga of identity, people and love in many forms. I really recommend it.
Grace J ReviewerLady
Three people, all with different lives; this is their stories.
Maria was washed up on the shores of Sweden in 1944 and has no memory of who she was – or where she came from – prior to that date. Angie, on the other hand, knows exact who and what she is. Living in Edinburgh, she’s a drug addict who is happy to survive day to day as long as she gets her fix. Jaak is fighting for Estonia’s independence, having lost his fiancee Maarja when the she fled the Soviet invasion along with her family and their ship was sunk.
This is a beautifully told story of three lost souls making the best of the life they have. Told in differing timescales, we learn of their lives then and their lives now. None of them have had it easy and it makes for riveting reading. It doesn’t look like a long read, but this is tightly woven and skilfully plotted and takes a fair bit of time to reach the end. Very much a saga-type read, and one I enjoyed. The author’s observations of Edinburgh are spot-on and, since she has spent time there, I assume she has Estonia well mapped out too. A rewarding read.
Books by Bindu
I adored this book and the characters of Maria, Angie and Jaak. This is a sweeping love story that takes us from the end of the Second World War to present day in both Scotland and Estonia. It so well plotted and the historical aspects of the book are completely on point. The pacing of the book is a slow walk through these peoples lives, with aspects being teased out slowly but towards the end of the book I couldn’t wait for the final resolution.
The narrative of this book is completely up my street. I studied Soviet and Baltic history at university and I forgot how much I enjoyed learning about the Singing Revolution and the line of people holding hands throughout the whole length of the Baltic states. It has certainly made me want to visit Estonia after the pandemic is over. I have always wanted to see it. I would have liked to have seen more of Jaak journey after the camp but that’s just probably me being a history geek! I had forgotten all about the Forest Brothers and their role in fighting for an independent Estonia. I felt that the book portrayed the excitement and hope with came about with Glasnost and perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Estonia in fact paved the way for its collapse as it was the first country to declare independence and have it informally acknowledged by Western states. It must have been an inspiring time to live through, the feeling of hope. Anyway I could babble on about this for ages so I will stop now….
The character of Maria was complex and mysterious at times. The development of her self-confidence was great to see after the death of her husband. It must be terrible to lose your memories and then have it jolted in such a way. The idea of Maria and Angie forming a bond at the local cancer centre was definitely unique and I am glad they found each other. There were many parallels in their lives but from first appearances you would never realise that. Angie and Maria both had a sadness to them at the start of the book and it was incredible to see how this developed throughout the book. Also special shout out to Albie - I was reading this whilst my own border terrier was on my lap!
I would really encourage you to read this book - you learn a lot about Baltic history but presented in an entertaining way. It is such a heart-warming book for something that dwells on quite dark periods of history, drug addiction, abuse both physical and mental.
Lena – Jera's Jamboree
Wow this book is breath-taking. I was completely captivated from start to finish as the stories of three characters – Maria, Angie and Jaak unfolded. Their stories are told through different points of view and timelines which could be confusing but instead the author has seamlessly woven their lives together and to great effect.
Maria is such an interesting character and is shaped by the fact that she doesn’t know who she is and where she came from. Now an old woman, her story goes back to the early 1940s where we are told about her early life and how she came to live in Scotland.
Angie is a young girl in her early twenties who hasn’t been given much of a chance in life. The two women meet at a cancer clinic where they are both receiving treatment.
Jaak is a victim of the hardships of war and a casualty of its consequences as he is banished from his beloved Estonia and separated from his love.
I loved the settings of Estonia, Scotland and Siberia and I learnt so much about Estonia’s history and hardships. The author writes with such beautiful skill and knowledge and it is clear the country is close to her heart.
I particularly enjoyed the blossoming friendship between Maria and Angie and thought that Angie’s accounts, told in a thick Scottish accent were effective and her voice provided a relief from the sometimes heavy descriptions of Estonia and both Jaak and Maria’s struggles.
The way their lives are interwoven is wonderful and I thought the whole book was a beautiful love letter to Estonia.
The Unravelling of Maria is in parts funny, tragic and epic and I thoroughly recommend it.
And here’s my review: When Fiona Curlew reached out to me to see if I would be interested in reviewing her book, I agreed because she seemed friendly and her novel piqued my interest, despite my misgivings that the cancer centre might feel a little too close to home for me as a survivor. I’m so glad I did, as I’ve experienced almost every emotion possible whilst reading this book and feel privileged to have got to know Angie and Maria.
I connected with the characters instantly, and enjoyed watching their friendship grow. The changes in perspective and time helped to gain a deeper understanding of them and I was completely drawn into the Scottish dialect in Angie’s chapters and speech, reminding me of reading Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting as a teenager. Maria’s polished veneer hides a strength and determination, and as her past is gradually revealed my respect for her grew even more.
The descriptive quality of the author’s writing made me feel as if I was there: in the forest of Estonia, holding my breath as I hoped the Russian soldiers didn’t hear me; in the cancer centre, waiting to find out if my treatment was working; in the grimy Edinburgh flat, frantically rolling a spliff to try and calm someone’s temper. It was an immersive experience and sometimes I was glad when the perspectives changed so I could breathe a little easier.
I felt for Maria as she reacted to unexpected triggers from her past which cracked open the amnesia sealed boxes in her mind to memories she didn’t understand. Angie’s care for her was touching, although I worried at the risk to both women from the men in Angie’s life. I felt too for Angie as her inner critic told her she was unworthy, judging her harshly and perpetuating the cycle of self abuse.
I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone so I will end by saying that this is one of the most compelling books I’ve read this year and I feel privileged to have read it. Whilst the subject matter isn’t always easy, it’s a beautiful story which challenges readers to look beyond the surface of those they see in life.
Told through multiple perspectives and across several timelines, The Unravelling of Maria is a beautiful written story of entwined characters across time. The writing is spellbinding and beautiful and each character is extremely well developed. There is romance, history, drama and it’s all told in a wonderful flowing narrative.
With each timeframe or character perspective the reading experience is completely immersive. Wherever and whenever the characters were – so was I. Estonia is a country I shamefully know nothing about and I found the historical aspect fascinating. I adored how Edinburgh (a place I love) was explored to include warts and all. It’s a city of contrast and this was clearly shown in the rich and vivid description.
All three main characters are developed beautifully, with flaws and relatable personalities. Each of then face their own heartbreak and struggles throughout the timeline which are written with sensitivity but honesty. Difficult things are not shied away from and they are not glamourised in any way. The characters’ struggles are raw and as a I reader I felt every pain they did.
I adored this book and I am so happy I was given the chance to read an arc copy for review. Sometimes you can feel, through the writing style, how an author has put so much of themselves into their work. This is definitely the case here. Strong research and knowledge combined with characters written from the heart make this an absolute gem of a book.