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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Creates a lasting impression
I have read other reviews on this book with interest and, to be honest, I can see both sides.

From my own perspective, The People's Act of Love was slow to come together - to see how the various strands inter-related. The first half dragged a little - the second half flew by. It is perhaps true that some of the characters could have been more strongly defined,...
Published on 13 Jun 2006 by MisterHobgoblin

versus
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A long trudge
I bought this book on the recommendation of Amazon after it was suggested as the "Perfect Partner" to Harry Thompson's magnificent "This Thing Of Darkness". Intrigued by the plot summary I decided to give it a go and it has left me with very mixed feelings.

The quality of writing is undoubted as Meek writes with a fine eye for detail and he paints a very vivid...
Published on 14 Aug 2007 by J.R.Hartley


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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Creates a lasting impression, 13 Jun 2006
By 
MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne) - See all my reviews
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I have read other reviews on this book with interest and, to be honest, I can see both sides.

From my own perspective, The People's Act of Love was slow to come together - to see how the various strands inter-related. The first half dragged a little - the second half flew by. It is perhaps true that some of the characters could have been more strongly defined, but only at the expense of the others. The basic premise of four central characters with no one star; no central transaction makes for a complex web of plotlines and more relationships than the typical novel. And this is a story of survival, rather than development.

I don't want to spoil the shocks - although other reviewers have. Mostly they are not delivered as bombshells, but are great crescendoes that have been worked towards over many pages. This may lessen the shock factor, but they add to the authenticity. In any case, the shock elements are really background texture in a novel that is really about human spirit. Ultimately, the book is about non-linear, complex love. It wends contrary patterns, steeped in enormous and graphic detail. The real test, though, is that when the story has ended, the images remain - deeply engrained.

The People's Act of Love is clearly not going to be to everyone's taste. It is not the greatest historical epic ever written. It is not an easy or light read, either. It is a measured and elaborate story, set in an obscure part of history and an obscure part of the world, that slowly works its magic without you realizing. If that is the type of novel that floats your boat (it floats mine) then give it a try. Then perhaps follow it up with This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson.
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37 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A review of the reviewers, 16 Feb 2007
By 
Reuben Los "Reuben Los" (New Caledonia, South Pacific) - See all my reviews
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Rarely before have I read such a diverging set of reviews. One reviewer refers to this book as "ridiculous", someone else calls it "stunning", and another "boring". Allow me to try to make some sense of all this.

Most reviewers find the book well-written, although a few found the language to be slow-going. A novel doesn't need to be an easy read in order to be well-written. I agree that the reading was a little slow at times, but I attribute that to the richness of the language.

The plot and setting are definitely original, and the author can only be given credit for that. The story focuses on the arrival in a small Siberian village of an escaped prisoner, who claims he is pursued by a cannibal. As the novel unfolds, we meet a group of stranded Czech soldiers, a community of eunuchs, and are left wondering who the cannibal really is... Most events, like the presence in Siberia of Czech soldiers, are based on historical fact.

The author spends much of his efforts on character development. He devotes large chunks of the first 150 pages to the lives and background of the various characters. This may give the impression at times that the storyline is going off on a tangent, and can explain why some reviewers found the plot boring or confusing.

However, character development is fundamental to the understanding of the book's main theme, which centers on different people's perception of love and the acts of stupidity and folly it can engender.

I will conclude by agreeing with one reviewer who claims that although all the ingredients were there, the author could perhaps have mixed them better. Had he done so, the book would have been a true masterpiece. A good and entertaining read all the same.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A journey into a harsh place, 12 Jun 2007
By 
Alexa (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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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
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cold knowledge, 7 Sep 2009
By 
J. R. P. Wigman "Hans Wigman" (Netherlands) - See all my reviews
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The world of cold Siberia is a foreign world for most of us so James Meek's book introduces new horizons and a slice of history that's not well-known.
Set in a forbidding landscape at the end of the first World War we find 3 storylines that are woven together: one about the mysterious and cruel Samarin, with whom the book starts, one about a legion of Czechs stranded in Siberia and desperate to go home and one about a woman, Anna, and her deeply religious husband who left her in to be (willingly!) castrated and be part of a curious sect. I understand that both the stories about the Czechs and the sect are in principle true: there were Czechs stranded and forgotten in Siberia and there were religious sects who were convinced that the devil resided in the male parts.

Place of action is a remote village in Siberia where the local population consists of members of the said sect, and where the Czechs are in command, led by a suitably nasty villain. The locals have a grudge against Anna, their beloved leader Balashov's former wife (though they don't know that) for being lustful and sinful. The Czechs are desperate to go home, but are awaiting orders, fearing that they are just forgotten. Samarin appears in their midst and throws everything off balance, creating havoc but new opportunities as well.

Do all these elements add up to create a good book? I'm not convinced. The first chapter (about Samarin) seemed a bit wooden to me, and I got the feeling that James Meek was trying to do an "Annie Proulx" without having her talent. Subsequent chapters seem to flow a bit more. Samarin the man is introduced but it is soon clear that he is intended to be a dark and symbolic figure, and the history that is outlined does not account for his actions or indeed character - but being larger than life does not stop him from being grossly inconsistent at the end of the story.
I was completely baffled by the Anna character: in all aspects a sane woman, considering her background, falling in love, getting married and having a child - and then following her husband who can't be and doesn't want to be a husband anymore to a remote part of the world with barely any inhabitants and very limited possibilities for her young son.
The Czechs are better represented in all their shapes and characters, I think, and while most characters in the book leave me quite cold, I was taken in by one of the main characters, Mutz.

The best part of this book is that it sets you thinking - about forgotten history, about remote places and their demands on people, and about resolving problems - waiting (or grabbing) for that stone to release a flood of possibilities. But a great novel it is not: the different story lines grate and you just feel that he's trying so hard to make this an important book, a profound book - which is why he fails.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars “No deep and strong feeling, 10 Mar 2006
By 
Leonard Fleisig "Len" (Virginia Beach, Virginia) - See all my reviews
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such as we may come across here and there in the world, is unmixed with compassion. The more we love, the more the object of our love seems to us to be a victim.”
Yuri Zhivago, who uttered these words in Boris Pasternak’s classic tale Dr. Zhivago, would no doubt find common bond with the setting and characters that inhabit James Meek’s wonderful book “The People’s Act of Love”.
Most of the People’s Act is set in 1919 in the village of Yazyk, in Siberia. To call Yazyk the middle of nowhere is to give it too much credit. Russia, now the USSR, is in the midst of its post-revolutionary civil war that has caused untold deaths and facilitated illnesses and famine. Yazyk’s end-of-the earth location does not insulate it entirely from these events. The town is run by a stranded division of a Czechoslovakian Legion with no apparent means to return to Prague subsequent to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Legion is commanded by Captain Matula who for all intents and purposes is both insane and sadistic. The civilians in the town consist mainly of a mystic sect of eunuchs (the “Skoptsy”) who believe their self-immolation removes the one body part responsible for most of the world’s sins. As far fetched as this may seem, the presence of stranded Czech soldiers and the existence of a sect of castrati inhabiting parts of Siberia is a matter of record and was not a piece of fiction created by Meek solely for this novel.
The town is also inhabited by Anna Petrovna, who appears to be a widow, and her son. The Red Army is making its way towards Yazyk and intends to seek revenge for an act of brutality committed by the Czechs. A younger stranger, Samarin, makes his way into the town. He tells a fantastic story about escaping from a Siberian labor camp. He indicates that he was fattened up before the escape by his prison ‘guardian’, Mohican, so that could eat Samarin after their food ran out. (This tale of cannibalism is also based on real events.)
The story of each group of protagonists is woven skillfully into the narrative. Although written by a British journalist and author in the 21st-century the narrative tone has a very Russian feel to it. The sentence structure, the formality of the conversation between the characters, and a somber, fatalistic tone will resonate with anyone who has read 19th and 20th century Russian literature. This particular structure holds up extremely well as the stories of each protagonist merge and the novel’s conclusion approaches.
The book’s title is taken from a line uttered by one of its characters. It is a very appropriate title in the sense that despite (or perhaps because of) the macabre nature of some of the events in the novel one theme that remains constant is the question of love and what we flawed creatures do in its name. In an interview about the novel the author made the following statement: If there is one thing which the four central characters in the book . . . agree on, it is that love exists and matters. What they disagree on is what love may be.
This theme of the infinite variability of love and the horrors transacted in the name of love may sound trite or too well worn a path to go down for some. However, in the hands of Meek it comes across as masterful and compelling. The People’s Act of Love was one I had trouble putting down once I got past the introductory chapters. If the test of a good novel is whether or not one continues to think about the story after it has been concluded – then People’s Act of Love passes with flying colors. It is a compelling and thoughtful book and any evocations to Russian authors of the 19th-century should be viewed as a well deserved accolade.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, absorbing and beautifully written,, 29 Oct 2006
I am baffled by some of the other reviews on this page... I can't see why anybody would find this book boring or difficult to read. For me, this novel was absorbing from its very earliest chapters. Yes, it covers some big themes and encompasses a somewhat confusing period of Russian political history, but these things in no way deter from an engrossing reader experience. Set against a backdrop of war and unrest, the novel focusses in on the lives of several individuals. As their stories unfold, certain horrific revelations emerge, solving mysteries central to the book. The settings of Siberia and the Arctic are beautifully evoked without ever relying on dense or overblown description. This is the sort of novel that will get you 'googling' for more information as soon as you finish reading.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rich and sparking story....., 24 Nov 2005
By A Customer
Yeah.... whatever those previous reviews said - this book was gorgeous! Was a bit difficult to get into, but before i knew it i was hooked. Made me think a little Northern Lights, a little The Princess Bride, The Idiot... there wasn't a single paragraph where i drifted off, or didn't linger over the words, and i'm usually a terrible person for skimming or reading the same page five times. I thought James Meek set Siberia's bleak desolation perfectly. The characters were sumptuous. It was like tumbling through the back of the wardrobe every time i started reading - a truly wonderful tale, that has renewed my enthusiasm and faith that there are still original storytellers out there.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Murder, cannibalism and castration - quite a combination!, 30 Aug 2009
By 
Wynne Kelly "Kellydoll" (Coventry, UK) - See all my reviews
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This is a very unusual book. It is set in the early years of the last century and relates events at the end of WW1 and the beginning of the Russian revolution. The writing is curiously old-fashioned - in fact it reads like a novel translated from Russian. (Dostievsky-lite?) A Czech regiment is stranded in a small Siberian town in 1919 and hoping to get home by going east to Vladivostock. They believe their lives will be in danger from the Reds. A stranger arrives claiming that he has escaped from a prison camp in the north and is being pursued by a cannibal. Also in the town is a group of castrati who believe that this is the only way to achieve true goodness.

So we have murder, cannibalism and castration in the story - quite a combination! There are some quite chilling episodes and some brilliant descriptions. Some of the story elements are a bit drawn out and overlong - some judicious editing would have helped.

But a very intriguing novel and I look forward to reading more of Meek's work.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard Siberia, 28 Sep 2006
By 
E. Patrick "Pilotsurfer" (Tiree, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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I am truly quite amazed by the reviews written here! I personally found this a fantastic read and as pertinent today as it was for the post-war period in which is set. Historically I found it very interesting for it concerns a whole front of the war seemingly neglected by many historians. Moreover however, it underlines how dangerous and stupid religious fundamentalism is. Historical and religious issues aside, Meek is undisputedly a superb writer. His words a joy to read, poetic and yet concise, this is a book of excellent content and structure told in such a way that the words just wrap you up like a warm Siberian blanket!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and warped novel about Siberia during the Russian Civil War, 11 May 2009
By 
M. A. Krul (London, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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"The People's Act of Love" by James Meek is a thrilling and surprising page-turner, situated in Siberia in 1919. Since the plot of the story is compact and full of surprises, I will not spoil the story by describing it, but instead I will give an impression of the book's atmosphere.

Through the eyes of several people present in a small town in the wilderness of Siberia, we see all the chaos and cynicism as well as dreams and aspirations of the time reflected. The characters, among which we find a mysterious cannibal, a Cavalry officer who becomes a member of a bizarre sect, a Jewish officer in the Czechoslovak Legion, and a woman with a gift for photography, may not be immediately likable, but they are certain to make a strong impression on the reader. Meek weaves the story of the meeting and eventual clash of all these characters together very well, making excellent use of evocative flashbacks, letters and monologues to create narrative tension, while maintaining at the same time a high pace of action.

The storyline is generally violent and cynical, as fits those times, and the brutal backdrop of Siberia in winter during times of shortage only serves to heighten the tension. After the various characters find themselves in Siberia, the Czechslovak Legion's presence in the area, an interesting yet historically real adventure tale, becomes the pivot around which all the events unfold. The bitterness of the cold as well as the people and their ideals portrays this crossing in Russia's history very well, and Meek has done a good job keeping the storyline actually exciting with constant surprises and plot twists. Although some of the praise on the cover must surely be taken as hyperbole, this is certainly an intriguing and riveting book, and well worth picking up to read on a lonely winter night.

NB: My review applies to the Dutch translation of this book only, as I have not read the English original. I see no reason to assume there are material differences between the two though.
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