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3.8 out of 5 stars
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3.8 out of 5 stars
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Self Help is a complex and engrossing novel.

A returned Soviet émigré, Maria Glover, is found dead in her St Petersburg flat by her son. He has flown out at short notice to answer her intriguing call of distress.

In the aftermath of Maria's passing, the Glover family secrets and stories start to come to light. The tentacles of these stories stretch from St Petersburg to London, Paris and New York as Maria's family have flown the nest and made, generally, unsuccessful and unfulfilling lives for themselves.

What makes Self Help is the level of intrigue in the stories - especially as Arkady, aided by English heroin addict Henry, tries to make contact with Maria's family. The novel is narrated from various perspectives, allowing characters to be the villain of the piece in one chapter and the focus of attention and sympathy in the next. The level of detail, too, is astounding. This creates a very real sense of place which, in four different cities, is no mean feat. By way of example, the detail we see of Gabriel's life - he is Maria's son - as he edits the Self-Help! magazine goes way beyond what is needed to carry the story along. Each of Gabe's staff gets a mention, along with their various issues and problems that make them totally unsuited to their work. And Arkady and Henry's dealings with the criminal underworld in St Petersburg ring very true indeed. The arch-baddie Leary is a comic creation of genius - his understanding of the psyche of the junkie is so true.

As the novel meanders its slow but shimmering path to conclusion, the various strands get brought together in various unpredictable ways. There is the obligatory jaw dropping moment of shock - and it really is jaw-dropping, but without being clichéd.

A couple of anachronisms apart, this is a total masterpiece. The language glows on the page, briefly, before the urge to turn the page kicks in. Top class.
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on 23 October 2007
If this is only Docx's second novel, he'll be winning awards in no time.

This is an engrossing novel about families which escapes the banality that often permeates such novels. The plot follows Gabriel and Isabella Glover, thirty two year-old twins, as they come to terms with their mother's death in Russia. Gabriel is based in London while Isabella lives in New York, and the sudden loss causes both to reassess their lives and relationships.

Meanwhile, a talented Russian pianist has links to the Glovers. His life is a million miles from theirs. Docx thrillingly evokes the sleazy underbelly of the poverty-stricken in Russia, and the horrors of drug dependency, withdrawal and eking out a living in a criminal world are fascinatingly depicted.

There are so many breathtakingly potent sections in this novel. Fear, anger, loyalty, hatred and love are all seared into the text, and some sections are white-knuckle inducing. Docx captures the conflicting emotions that family evokes. And the characters are rounded and believable, they have faults like real people, and their dialogue sparkles.

The Booker should have gone to this or to Darkmans.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 18 August 2011
NB. This novel "Pravda' was also published under the title:Self Help

I came to this novel after reading Docx's first book: 'The Calligrapher' which I enjoyed but was hoping for something more with his second novel: 'Pravda'. I am glad to say that I enjoyed this second book more than his first; it drew me in from its opening pages and I found myself immersed in the author's descriptions of London, Paris and especially St Petersburg, where Docx's gritty portrayal of the streets, alleyways, canals and underground bars were very well depicted - places you might not want to experience firsthand but might enjoy visiting vicariously.

This is an engrossing novel about a fairly dysfunctional family who live separate lives in Russia, England, France and the USA. Gabriel Glover travels from London to St Petersburg after a worrying phone call from Maria, his mother, only to find her dead in her apartment when he arrives. Isabella, his twin sister, flies in from the USA to support her brother, both of them fiercely hoping that their estranged father, Nicholas, a bisexual hedonist living in Paris, does not join them for the funeral. Unknown to Gabriel and Isabella, their mother had given birth to and abandoned a son, Arkady, in Russia before she met Nicholas and defected to England. Initially unaware of his parentage, Arkady spent his early life in an orphanage but is now trying to follow his ambition of becoming a concert pianist and is connected through his friendship with Henry (a drug addict) to the underworld of St Petersburg. Henry is willing to do anything to help Arkady realize his ambition and the death of Maria Glover causes far reaching problems, not just for the twins, but for Arkady and Henry also.

As so often happens after the death of close relation, other family members start to think about their own lives more deeply and this is where the author excels with his descriptions of his characters; we know what clothes they wear, what they look like, where they live, how they behave and, most importantly, how they feel - in fact sometimes we are almost swamped with long descriptions about the characters' feelings and self analyses. This has, in some instances, lead to an abundance of very long sentences which, although suitably punctuated (thank heavens for the semi-colon) do sometimes become rather rambling - however that said, I did not feel this detracted from the merits of the book. In some aspects this novel is a traditional, sprawling family story, in other ways it is dark, gritty and contemporary; this is not a great novel, but it is a very good one. Recommended.

4 Stars.
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on 29 August 2007
Gabriel Glover lives in London and struggles to hold together a self help magazine he despises, basically writing most of the copy and doing the design work himself given his incompetent lazy staff. One night Gabriel receives a distressing phone call from his mother Masha who lives in St Petersburg. She presses upon him metaphysical advice and laments the demise of people's ability to inhabit themselves fully. Bothered by the worrisome sound of her voice and her bouts of coughing, he races to Russia only to find her dead in her apartment. Gabriel and his twin sister Isabella search throughout this novel to discover who their mother really was and, more pressingly, who they are themselves. Amidst their quest, their despised philandering father Nicholas must admit some secrets which both he and Masha carefully withheld from their children. Masha's illegitimate son Arkady holds the key to breaking the silence between the father and his grieving children. The pessimistic Arkady is searching to find some way to finance his musical education and wants to see if the Glover relatives who he's never met will help him. He is a gifted pianist that has seen his talent squandered in the shifting gears of Russia's transforming political system. Even more committed to Arkady's education is his friend Henry who is a teacher with an unfortunate drug habit. In the last hundred pages of this sprawling novel, the strands of these characters' stories come together to unearth some surprising revelations and a heart-breaking climax.

Docx has produced a powerful family novel teeming with rich ideas and universal themes concerning identity, loss and social/familial dislocation. Each character is explored in depth and with great sympathy. Nicholas' psychology and relationship with his young male lover who schemes to get a steady allowance from the older man is complexly drawn. Henry sees his resources dwindling in his struggle to assist Arkady and kick his drug addiction. His slow downward spiral is written in a way that feels harrowing and true. However, this portion of the story seems glued on to the larger narrative about this family's struggle to reunite and discover how they fit together. This is a difficult novel which yields many great rewards, but the story can be a bit unwieldy in its focus at times. One of Docx's greatest talents is for describing the numerous cities this novel travels through over the course of the story. St Petersburg, Paris, London and New York are all vividly evoked in rich sensual detail giving real character to the places and making them physically real. More than that, he holds up a reflection of the values and sensibility of Russia compared to the West. Docx has many intelligent and heartfelt things to say about the responsibility we have to accept ourselves fully. While Self Help isn't meant to be prescriptive, it does give you a lot to think about.
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on 3 August 2007
This is an outstanding novel - highly recommended. Docx's writing style is in turn lyrical, affecting and funny.

This book aims high and succeeds, delivering a complex, emotionally involving plot set against an evocative portrayal of St Petersburg and a modern day, media-centric London.

Looking forward to more from this talented author.
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on 10 July 2007
Another brilliantly written and gripping novel from Edward Docx. Darker than the Calligrapher, dealing with family & secrets spread across London, St Petersburg, Paris and New York. There's a much broader cast of characters in this one - from the brooding suppressed violence of the silent Arkady, a Russian pianist; to the intelligent, cruel, indolence of bisexual Nicholas, a gracefully aged Dorian Grey, painting badly in Paris. Hard to choose a favourite, really.

The chapter from which the book takes its title is hilarious. Gabriel, the sort-of hero, works on a magazine called Self Help (providing advice to the emotionally desperate) and all his staff are useless. He tries to keep his temper while reducing the camp, page designer to tears over his spread of Princess Diana for that month's front cover, themed "Toxic Parents". Docx is definitely one of the funniest writers I've ever read...

But as well as the humour there are sensitive, affecting, indeed deeply moving scenes - the loss of a mother, the sympathy of loved ones, Isabella breaking up with her boyfriend, brother and sister arguing, childhood memories of parental anger. And as with The Calligrapher, the location descriptions, the scene setting of time and place, are spell-binding.

All in all: definitely worth it. I am a fan. Just wish he would write more!
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on 2 August 2007
The death of Gabriel and Isabella's mother throws her two children into emotional turmoil and makes them confront not only the ghosts of their past but also their problems in the present. The past exerts a profound effect on their current lives albeit hidden under a cloak of surface normality.

The chapters moves from scene to scene, character to character, country to country but the thread of the story is never lost. It is a consistent page turner, moving from the self indulgence of the twin's father, the romantic Marxism of their mother to the harsh reality of life in present day St Petersburg for Arkady, the talented Russian pianist raised in institutions since birth. The novel also focuses on Gabriel's intense dislike of his father to whom he bears more of a resemblance than he would like to think. This aversion is also shared by Gabriel's twin sister Isabella albeit to a somewhat lesser degree.

Self Help is a tale of a dysfunctional family, existential crises and a dream of musical success. It is an engaging and page turning tale set against the background of the cities of St Petersburg, Paris, London and New York. It's a search for a sense of self and the characters' endeavours to turn their backs on life's typical path.
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on 23 July 2007
I hadn't heard of the author before, and I was a bit put off by the sheer size of the book - but it had been highly recommended to me by someone I trust on these things, so I took it to Greece with me last week. I'm glad I did.

What a read. Right from the first pages you're plunged into the story, and introduced to all these great characters, and made to feel like you're in St Petersburg or London or wherever the chapter is set. It's a good old-fashioned family drama, with plenty of plot twists and surprises. And it's written beautifully - lots of memorable, elegant sentences.

Maybe it could be shorter. He sometimes gets carried away with his own talent for writing great sentences, and I occasionally got confused by all the characters and how they related to one another. But overall these were minor problems. I polished it off in the first three days of my holiday and had to move on to Saturday by Ian McEwan, which frankly was a bit pale by comparison.
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on 14 February 2013
I read this book for my book club group we had the most animated discussion that we have had in ages and all 8 of us really enjoyed the book.
I found the swearing too frequent, the characters swore like builders on a building site, which was not consistent with the characters they were supposed to be.
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on 28 August 2007
Highly absorbing, often witty and consistently compelling stuff.

The vivid descriptive passages and well-structured character development are punctuated by suitably verbose self-analysis and brooding introspection, bringing a potboiler-like urgency to the narrative. A precise 20th century malaise with which it is not difficult to empathize hasn't been captured this well in a novel for a while. Highly recommended.
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