White Gardenia is a sweeping, emotional journey that “depicts vividly the powerful lifelong bond between mothers and daughters” (Paullina Simons, author of The Bronze Horseman). In a district of the city of Harbin, a haven for White Russian families since Russia’s Communist Revolution, Alina Kozlova must make a heartbreaking decision if her only child, Anya, is to survive the final days of World War II. Both mother and daughter must make sacrifices. Will they ever find each other again? Rich in historical detail, White Gardenia is a compelling and beautifully written tale about yearning, longing, and the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child.
We Russians believe that if you knock a knife from the table
to the floor, a male visitor will come, and if a bird flies into
the room, the death of someone close to you is at hand. Both
these events occurred in 1945, around my thirteenth birthday,
but there had been no omens of dropped knives or stray birds to
The General appeared on the tenth day after my father’s
death. My mother and I were busy removing the black silk that
had been draped over the mirrors and icons for the nine days of
mourning. My memory of my mother on that day has never
dimmed. Her ivory skin framed by wisps of dark hair, the pearl
studs in her fleshy earlobes, and her fiery amber eyes piece together into a sharply focused photograph before me: my mother,
a widow at thirty-three.
I recall her thin fingers folding the dark material with a languidness
that was not usual. But then we were both shell-shocked
by loss. When my father had set out on the morning of his doom,
his eyes shining and his lips brushing my cheeks with parting kisses,
I had no anticipation that my next view of him would be in a heavy
oak coffin, his eyes closed and his waxen face remote in death. The
lower part of the casket remained shut to hide the legs that had
been mutilated in the twisted wreck of the car.
The night my father’s body was laid out in the parlor, white
candles on either side of the coffin, my mother bolted the garage
doors shut and fastened them with a chain and padlock.
I watched her from my bedroom window as she paced back
and forth in front of the garage, her lips moving in a silent
incantation. Every so often she would stop and push her hair
back over her ears as if she were listening for something, but
then she would shake her head and continue her pacing. The
next morning I slipped out to look at the lock and chain. I
understood what she had done. She had clasped shut the garage
doors the way we would have clasped onto my father if we had
known that to let him drive into the lashing rain would be to
let him go forever.
In the days following the accident our grief was diverted by a
constant rotation of visits from our Russian and Chinese friends.
They arrived and left hourly, by foot or by rickshaw, leaving
their neighboring farms or city houses to fill our home with the
aroma of roasted chicken and the murmur of condolences. Those
from the land came laden with gifts of bread and cake or the
field flowers that had survived Harbin’s early frosts, while those
from the city brought ivory and silk, a polite way of giving us
money, for without my father, my mother and I faced hard times
Then there was the burial. The priest, craggy and knotted
like an old tree, traced the sign of the cross in the chilly air before
the casket was nailed shut. The thick-shouldered Russian men
jabbed their spades into the dirt, dropping frozen clods of earth
into the grave. They worked hard with set jaws and downcast
eyes, sweat slipping from their faces, either out of respect for my
father or to win the admiration of his beautiful widow. All the
while our Chinese neighbors kept their respectful distance outside
the cemetery gate, sympathetic but suspicious of our custom
of burying our loved ones in the ground and abandoning them
to the mercy of the elements.
Afterwards the funeral party returned to our home, a wooden
house my father had built with his own hands after fleeing Russia
and the Revolution. We sat down to a wake of semolina cakes and
tea served from a samovar. The house had originally been a simple
pitched-roof bungalow with stovepipes sticking out from the eaves,
but when my father married my mother he built six more rooms
and a second story and filled them with lacquered cupboards,
antique chairs and tapestries. He carved ornate window frames,
erected a fat chimney and painted the walls the buttercup yellow
of the dead Tsar’s summer palace. Men like my father made Harbin
what it was: a Chinese city full of displaced Russian nobility.
People who attempted to re-create the world they had lost with
ice sculptures and winter balls.
When our guests had said all that could be said, I followed
behind my mother to see them off at the door. While they were
putting on their coats and hats I spotted my ice skates hanging
on a peg in the front entrance. The left blade was loose and I remembered that my father had intended to fix it before the winter.
The numbness of the past few days gave way to a pain so sharp
that it hurt my ribs and made my stomach churn. I squeezed my
eyes shut against it. I saw a blue sky race towards me and a thin
winter sun shining on ice. The memory of the year before came
back to me. The solid Songhua River; the cheerful cries of the
children struggling to stay upright on their skates; the young lovers
gliding in pairs; the old people shuffling around in the center,
peering for fish through the sections where the ice was thin.
My father lifted me high on his shoulder, his blades scraping
against the surface with the added weight. The sky became a
blur of aqua and white. I was dizzy with laughter.
“Put me down, Papa,” I said, grinning into his blue eyes. “I
want to show you something.”
He set me down but didn’t let me go until he was sure that
I had my balance. I watched for a clearing and skated out into
it, lifting one leg off the ice and spinning like a marionette.
“Harashó! Harashó!” My father clapped. He rubbed his
gloved hand over his face and smiled so widely that his laugh
lines seemed to come to life. My father was much older than my
mother, having completed his university studies the year she was
born. He had been one of the youngest colonels in the White
Army and somehow, many years later, his gestures had remained
a mix of youthful enthusiasm and military precision.
He held out his hands so I could skate to him, but I wanted
to show off again. I pushed myself out farther and started to turn,
but my blade hit a bump and my foot twisted under me. I smacked
against the ice on my hip and knocked the wind out of my lungs.
My father was at my side in an instant. He picked me up and
skated with me in his arms to the riverbank. He set me down on
a fallen tree trunk and ran his hands over my shoulders and ribs
before slipping off the damaged boot.
“No broken bones,” he said, moving my foot between his
palms. The air was freezing and he rubbed my skin to warm it.
I stared at the white streaks that mingled with the ginger hair
on his crown and bit my lip. The tears in my eyes were not from
the pain but from the humiliation of having made a fool of
myself. My father’s thumb pressed against the swelling around
my ankle and I flinched. Already the purple stain of a bruise was
beginning to show.
“Anya, you are a white gardenia,” he smiled. “Beautiful and
pure. But we need to handle you with care because you bruise
I rested my head on his shoulder, almost laughing but crying
at the same time.
BELINDA ALEXANDRA is the widely acclaimed, internationally bestselling author of numerous novels, including her American debut Tuscan Rose. The daughter of a Russian mother and an Australian father, she lives in Australia. Alexandra’s Golden Earrings (Gallery Books; August 4, 2015; $16.00) will publish this summer.
“[White Gardenia] tackles a difficult time in history from a fresh perspective…There’s a great deal to like here…Alexandra excels at evoking exotic locations such as the crowded streets of Shanghai…those who are fascinated by the time period or love a good family saga will be pleased. Alexandra has legions of dedicated fans, and they will be thrilled that her first novel is finally available in the United States.”
“Sweeping epic told with sensitivity and grace…Anya is a wonderfully realized heroine, resilient in the face of hardship and the consequences of her own mistakes...Exotic, evocative, and achingly expressive, WHITE GARDENIA is an impressive testament to the many kinds of heroism regular people display in both war and peace.”
“Fans of The Bronze Horseman will be captivated by [WHITE GARDENIA]. The plotline is compelling, the backdrop fascinating and the characters will lure you into their story. Alexandra spins an epic, sprawling tale that hooks you from the beginning and introduces little-known geographical areas and historical events.”