This is not a cosy little murder mystery. In superficial terms, the plot turns on an isolated community in Siberia discovering that there is a cannibal in their midst. But don't read this if you are looking for yet another 'police procedural' with an exotic setting; this is not a tale of 'good guys' versus 'bad guys'.
Disperate characters act out of conflicting motives; some we might identify with, some may feel very foreign. Those who act out of the purest idealism may perform the actions that a observer would categorise as the most horrific; those characters who at first may seem most alien to us may act out of the simplest motives, the motives with which we can most easily identify.
If the above paragraph seems obscure,it is because I do not want to spoil the twists and turns of the plot for the reader! Other reviewers praise Meek's prose; for me, the strength of his writing lies in his characterisations; he has the ability to make the unusual sympathetic, and the mundane monstrous.
But he does not shy away from the realities of a terrible period - as Meek points out in his afterword, the use of a human "cow" is not an invention of the author's, but a documented practice. Similarly, the Skoptsy self-castration for religious purposes - which seems to so disturb another reviewer! - was an integral belief of this unusual religious sect, who flourished, despite severe persecution for around a hundred years. Personally I find the absence of any concern for human life demonstrated by some of the secular zealots of the story far more chilling.
This is a novel that deals with disturbing ideals, and the lengths to which people will go to achieve them. It deals also with various types of love, and the way in which a common emotion produces very different effects on different people. By bringing the scale down to the personal and intimate, we get to sympathise with each character to some extent, however monstrous their actions.
The more unlikely elements in the book - the Skoptsy, the trans-Siberian railway line as Czech territory, the human "cow" - are true. The one element that is fictitious (as Meek admits, the description of life in a katorga fits the Soviet period, not the tsarist), is permitted by context.
However, this is not a freak-show; the novel asks, "What rules can be broken, to achieve [heaven/a socialist utopia/a good upbringing for your child/a return home/the survival of the one you love]?" "What can be sacrificed?" "Should *you* make that sacrifice... or should it be someone else...?"
The introduction of various characters may seem to shatter the focus of the narrative, until their stories interleave, but it is necessary to know the character's backgrounds. One has to know the 'normality' from which the events of the novel precipitates them, as they are stretched, and learn new things about themselves