Montefiore, a well-regarded biographer of Stalin (Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar) and Potemkin, here retools his knowledge of Stalin to recreate the history of the evil dictator's rise and fall via the fortunes and misfortunes of a young English boy over the course of a school year. William is a much picked-upon nerd/weakling at an undistinguished English boarding school in the early 1970s. In the life of Stalin he discovers the means to usurp the existing power dynamics of his school and reduce the rugby/cricket-playing elite to nonentities. Naturally, various other of the school outcasts are enlisted in the revolution to fill historical roles: a huge Nigerian boy, a relation of the Shah of Iran, and various weedy kids all join the Party, and townie toughs are even brought in as mercenary shock troops.
As William unleashes his reign of terror, each plot development runs parallel to his hero Stalin's career. William's speech is sprinkled throughout with Stalinist quotes, and the reader must accept the notion that a young schoolboy has managed to memorize everything Stalin ever said or did. Of course, the greater one's knowledge is of Stalinist history, the more enjoyable it all is (although there is a timeline at the rear of the book, and Montefiore is careful to spell things out along the way). In addition to all this, there's an additional subplot about William's crush on a female teacher, and the mysterious onset of puberty. There's a good deal of dark comedy to all this, even as the story recreates the cruel "Lord of the Flies" syndrome that occurs whenever adolescent zeal is coupled with a taste of real power. Ultimately, the book is a gimmicky coming-of-age type work, albeit a well-executed one with some very funny bits.
on 12 April 2013
No need for a summary of content here - an earlier review is excellent on this. The aspect of My Affair with Stalin I want especially to praise is its wonderful evocation of the life of a prep-school boy in the 1970s: I was there, and thanks to Montefiore, I've just been back.
Funny, sad, horrific, wonderful! A brilliant book; read it!