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.
on 16 February 2007
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.
"He's not a destroyer; he is destruction, leaving these good people who remain to build a better world on the ruins. What looks like an act of evil to a single person is the people's act of love to its future itself." Samarin pretending to speak of another, but really speaking of himself.
James Meek has written a marvelous story-telling in this novel. It portrays the Russian revolution in such detail you would think you are in the world of 1917. So many characters woven into effortless story lines, so that the story grabs our attention. The characters are revealed in a central figure, and we are able at last to understand the drama and the truth. James Meek attended Edinburgh University and as a journalist for the "Guardian" and "Observer" reported from Russia for ten years. He has been able to show us the horrific sights and scenes of Siberia: cruelty, murder and cannibalism. And, yet the sun shining on the snow, the love of a man and a woman; the everyday life of those who live the best they can.
Samarin, one of the main characters shows up in tiny, poor Yazyk, a Siberian community. His story is that of a political prisoner, a run-away from a horrible place in the Arctic. He has escaped with "Mohican" a guard at this prison. Mohican took Samarin with him, it seems, to eat his flesh. Samarin's story is slowly unraveled, but not before we meet the other characters. An extreme Christian sect that castrates its members so they can be called angels. A group of Czechoslovakian legions, trying to leave this God-forbidden place, led by Lieutenant Mutz. Mutz loves the earth and a woman, Anna Petrovna. Anna is the wife of the leader of the Christian sect. She is also a woman who loves men and sex, photography and her son.
All these characters and more who are puzzled about many events. They learn as we do, when the puzzle begins to fit; the meaning of the extremes of the political, the spiritual and the humanity. There are heroes and there is goodness. This is a particularly spectacular book, written by a particularly special writer.
Highly recommended. prisrob 06-03-13
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.
on 22 October 2013
The People's Act of Love is set, for the most part, in the Siberian town of Yazyk in 1919. The town has been taken over by a legion of Czech soldiers facing the imminent arrival of the revolutionary army. The principal story, however, revolves around the arrival of Samarin, a revolutionary convict who has escaped from a prison camp known as the White Garden. Yazyk is home to an unusual religious cult and the 'widow' of its main proponent.
Meek has taken three historical elements; the Czech legion in Siberia; the presence of castrates in Russia; and the occurrence of cannibalism in the wilderness to develop a complex story set in the unrelenting cold of Siberia. In part he manages to carry this off; the unforgiving landscape; the tensions within the Czech legion; and the characterisation of Samarin, the mysterious escaped convict work for some of the novel. Sadly the book's complexity is also its fundamental weakness. In order to bring these various extreme plot lines to a satisfactory conclusion, the various characters have to behave in peculiar ways and thereby lose credibility. As a result the ending is contrived and the reader feels cheated. Added to the implausible plot, the writing is not of a high standard. There are many sentences which make no sense at all, bizarre allusions, such as Sherlock Holmes hat. This, together with dubious dialogue and motivation make this a mediocre novel.
on 29 October 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.
on 30 January 2013
The novel is set in 1919 in Siberia. We are approaching the end of the Civil War and the triumph of the Revolution. The Reds are closing in on the remnants of a Czech division who from 1914 have fought from one side of Russia to the other. They now occupy a village inhabited by members of an extreme religious sect. The setting is almost surreal. The story is carried by a small group of characters - the sadistic Czech captain Matula, his idealistic lieutenant Mutz, the leader of the sect, Balashov, a mysterious revolutionary Samarin and the leader of the Red force, Bondarenko. Each in their own way espouses a philosophy while owning that circumstances do not allow of pure acts of virtue, even by and for the People. Everybody hurts. These themes have been managed in fiction before, as James Meek relates in an appendix. What gives his book some thing special is the other main character - Anna, exiled in this outpost with her son. For Anna the questions posed are not of a metaphysical interest, but about her survival and security. The men relate to her and her need, not least for love, in very different ways. She is a fantastic character, a real heroine. Notwithstanding the seriousness of these themes James Meek has also written a very good story.
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
on 24 November 2005
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.
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.