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Interesting, uneven, and ultimately unsatisfying,
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This review is from: One Night in Winter (Paperback)
The historian leaned back in his chair and thought "I make a decent living from writing popular non-fiction, but I don't make nearly as many zloties as that Robert Harris, I think I'll try for a bit of what he's getting"
And he nearly, but not quite, makes it. What Sebag-Montefiore has produced here is a strangely uneven work, at times gripping, packed with presumably accurate period detail, but which is also rather disjointed and unsatisfying. Looked at through one lens there is some skilful story telling with multiple narratives all being tied together nicely at the end. From another perspective, the knots are too neat and small, the book lacks a sense of a crescendo, it burns out its energy well before the end and the resolution is almost a non-sequiteur from the rest of the book. The effort went into the journey rather than the destination. The author writes on an ambitious canvas, with a large cast of characters, both fictional and real, but then the reader never really gets to know any of them. Above all, despite the attempts to bring everything together at the end, this feels like at least three, possibly four wildly different books.
Act 1 - Harry Potter and the Goths of Stalin
The first section has many elements familiar to anyone who has read any form of school story. The new boy Andrei has to fit in with his seemingly glamorous classmates. In doing so he is confronted by the stern but ultimately kindly headmaster, the inspirational teacher, the malevolent Snape-like character and the arrogant bully. As this is set in Moscow at the time of the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany, the unsympathetic teacher is a bolshevik fanatic, the charismatic pedagogue is a victim of the Terror, and the bully is Stalin's son. In this first section, I rather got the impression that the writer of fiction hadn't quite escaped his original profession as 17 year olds occasionally think more like narrating historians than teenage boys.
The teenage pupils whom Andrei is keen to befriend are pale and interesting young men and women who meet in graveyards to reenact the life and works of Pushkin. They also happen to be the offspring of the Soviet leadership.
Things take a darker turn when a fake duel goes wrong on the day of the Russian WW II victory celebration and two of the school children lie dead.
Act 2 - Suffer the little children
The second section was for me the most problematic. Following the tragic events which bring the first act to a close, the secret police get involved in the investigation. The two adjectives which could lazily be used here would be Orwellian and Kafkaesque as the children are sucked into Stalin's cruel bureaucracy. My difficulty is that the two earlier writers produced brilliantly allegorical, political works which used fiction as a means of denouncing state terror and warning of the consequences of totalitarianism. This is not a political work, it is a work of popular entertainment, and yet we are explicitly presented with the psychological torture and suffering of six and ten year old children. I found that gratuitously upsetting.
Act 3 - Mills and Boon
After the darkness of the second act there is a drastic change of tone and we are suddenly presented with heaving breasts, aching loins, panting passion and not one but two prime candidates for the bad sex awards.
Acts 4 &5 - Fizzling out
The fourth section is where Sebag-montefiore brings everything to a conclusion but his story deflates rather than climaxing. In the notes at the end of the book he gives an account of the real events on which he bases his novel. I got the impression that he had decided that these were the stories that he was going to tell, but his interest was more in the world he was describing than in the fate of his characters. He brings his tale to an end somewhat unenthusiastically, and left this reader at least, feeling rather unengaged, especially as he quickly skates over huge events in his characters' lives by jumping 8 and 30 years into the future.
So, in summary, this is a reasonable book, aside from the unnecessary cruelty. I just found myself wondering what it is trying to achieve. Given the author's background it is based on a great deal of scholarly research, but it is also aimed squarely at the bestseller market. Is it trying to provide a warning from history, or is it just a slightly nasty rather exploitative work.
Finally one might surmise that the author has fallen into the biographer's trap. There is clearly a hatred of Stalin's inhumanities, but there is definitely a sense of admiration for the old tyrant in there too.