Gina Ochsner’s second novel, The Hidden Letters of Velta B., is a captivating, tragicomic story about family and community relationships in a contemporary Latvian town. A dying mother, Inara, recalls her life and family history to her enormous-eared son, whose heightened sense of hearing allows him to hear both the living and the dead.
The lyrical, non-chronological “ruminations of [Inara’s] internal landscape” include fragments of secret letters by her grandmother, who lived through World War II. She longs to equip Maris, her beloved son, to bear witness to both sorrow and joy. As she shares her reflections, she realizes that the work of witnessing cannot be done alone or ever truly finished on this earth. “This is a story about where love comes from, and that is a story that has no beginning and no end. It is a story that has a thousand versions, all of them true,” she says.
Ochsner has a gift for making the practical mythical, so that the simplest scenes of everyday tasks and quiet moments surge forward with fable-like energy. She skillfully balances the particulars of Inara’s family history with that of the broader community. These colorful characters—gravediggers, fishermen, nomads, musicians, fortunetellers, and mushroom hunters—argue bitterly about politics, religion, and economic change. They also share jokes, riddles, songs, and dances as they cling to the richly artistic traditions passed down through generations. Together, these men, women, and children must reckon with collective memories and conflicting dreams for the future.
Every chapter of this uniquely magical small town tale is animated by Ochsner’s poetic feel for reverence and wonder. The Hidden Letters of Velta B. will surely enchant and surprise readers who believe, or long to believe, in storytelling as a communal act of faith, love, preservation, and even resurrection. (Banner review)
PS: In Aaron Guest’s excellent Relief Journal essay about the power of reading books aloud, he says that “Ochsner’s brilliant writing [in this novel] absorbs the euphony of oral story-telling.” I wholeheartedly agree. I ended up alternating between the print book and the audiobook, which was a very enjoyable way to savour its prose.