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3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars
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on 4 February 2016
Firstly, don't believe the blurb on the cover that says the author is the Ian McEwan of Russia. If this is an example, they have little in common other than being special writers. Don't expect a conventional novel - I have read nothing similar. Once you get into it, you will find an exceptional, passionate and beautifully written book based on letters written by lovers living in different times. Just give it a chance and you will be rewarded!
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This novel, by award winning Russian author Mikhail Shishkin, takes the form of letters between Sashsa (or Sashenka) and Vovka (or Volodenka/Volodya). However, what at first appears to be a typical love affair soon has the sense of something quite out of the ordinary.

Sasha and Vovka are separated by war, as Vovka is in the army - "the only thing still left to do was to choose myself a war..." he writes. Although it is never specified which war he is fighting in, possibly it is the Boxer Rebellion, which sets his letters around 1900. However, Sasha's letters seem to belong to a more modern age and, eventually, we realise this remarkable couple are kept apart not only by location and circumstance, but also time.

As the novel progresses, these letters become the outpourings of their lives. They cover their childhoods, relationships with parents, step-parents and friends. The man who became a soldier writes of playing at war with buttons, while his mother asks, "do you know that every button that's killed has a mummy too, and she's waiting at home, crying?" Indeed, much of this novel muses on mankind's never-ending ability to wage war. From contemplating the "ideal death" and the fear of being maimed, while Sasha is at home dealing with the mundane and the difficult.

This is a remarkable novel about a unique couple. "You and I have been one whole for a long time. What can separate us? There is nothing that can separate us.". This is a beautiful book which will stay with me for a long time and which I enjoyed immensely.
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on 21 April 2013
There's so much to admire and enjoy in this - the language, the storytelling, the ambition and high risk of the structure, which is realised in spades; the Tolstoyan scope and engagement with ideas and philosophy effortlessly absorbed into the day to day lives of the characters.Hugely recommended (as is Maidenhair bu the same writer).
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on 7 June 2013
I found that this book seemed like the outpourings of a teenager going through an existential crisis. There are some semi-profound thoughts and ideas about the timelessness of love, the transience of life etc., but the story is weak. The review quoted on the cover of my edition that it 'reaches over the heads of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to the tradition of Pushkin' is certainly unfounded - to compare Shishkin to any of these writers is, frankly, laughable.

Overall, there were some thought provoking moments and the book is an easy read, so I would perhaps recommend it to a younger reader - perhaps late teens - as an easy-going example of existential literature, but it is by no means a particularly good one.
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on 25 April 2013
I kept hoping but gave up after 120 pages of turgid, commonplace prose. Letters are letters, and these are not especially insightful. I become more and more amazed and off-put by the number of weighty reviews in advance that are used to clobber the reader of books just out. Interestingly, on the current US Amazon site this book is advertised but not yet available. But the site carries various glowing newspaper reviews while preventing any reader from saying what he or she thinks.
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on 28 April 2013
We chose this book for our book club. It was rather heavy going. The book consists of letters from a soldier in the Boxer rebellion at the turn of the 20th century to his sweetheart, and letters from her to him. There was some debate between us about the time frames involved here. The time frame for him was fairly straightforward and linear, but there was some debate about what time frame the girl occupied. He manages to see optimism during a fairly horrendous wartime experience (the Light?) whereas her life seems rather dreary (?the Dark).There were passages of beautiful prose which others have quoted and I wont repeat, and there were clever references to other literary masterpieces (which I hadn't read). I suspect this will make for a very worthy A-level English literature text at some point in the future but it wasn't much fun to read. Perhaps I am too much of a light weight reader. At least I can say to my friends that I've been reading modern Russian existentialist literature concerning the immortality of love preserved in words and watch them look surprised.
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