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I was beyond sceptical about this book when I first came across it - about Russia but written by an American? However, the good reviews made me take a chance on it and I am SO GLAD! Absolutely captivating, with tonnes of laugh out loud moments and moments where I cried. Really beautifully written, really well researched (honestly it reads as though a Russian wrote it!). The narrators were a bit of a let down - only because of their attempts at the accent - only one had the real Russian pronunciation - but I assume lost listeners are not Russian so wouldn't care. This book is a joy and I cannot recommend it enough!!! I am now going to listen to his novel!!!!
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Leningrad, 1937: in the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation, a failed artist spends his days airbrushing enemies of the Soviet regime out of history, while retouching pictures of Stalin to ensure that he always looks great – in fact, getting younger by the year. The artist understands the danger of photographs, so when his brother is killed by the regime, he persuades his sister-in-law to destroy all pictures of him. But he begins to paint his brother's face over those faces he has been tasked with removing, so that over time his brother appears in many pictures, even with Stalin. Then, as a small act of rebellion, he leaves a trace of a ballerina he has been told to erase – an act that will cost him dearly...
Kirovsk, 2013: a chorus of the women of this poisoned industrial town tell the story in first person plural of Galina, granddaughter of a ballerina who had been sent to Siberia after falling foul of Stalin's regime. Galina's beauty allows her to rise out of the poverty of her beginnings, becoming a beauty queen and marrying the 13th richest man in Russia. Along the way, she breaks the heart of her first love, and perhaps also her own...
Grozny, Chechnya, 2003: since the local museum burned down, the Deputy Director of Regional Art has been forced to take on the role of head of the tourist board – a difficult task in a city still scarred by war...
These are the three locations in which this collection of stories take place, over the period of the last century. Although each story is separate and could easily be read on its own (in fact, I believe some of them were first published as individual short stories in various papers and magazines) they are so beautifully interlinked that the eventual effect is to create something that really must be considered a novel. The central linking stories are those of Galina and her first love, Kolya, who later becomes a soldier in the war in Chechnya; and of a painting by the Chechen artist, Zakharov – the painter is real, the painting, as far as I can gather, is an invention of the author. The painting is repeatedly altered by the people into whose hands it falls over the decades, till it becomes a kind of metaphor, partly for the way history can be altered to suit the agenda of the historian, and partly of the different perceptions people can have of the same events.
Through the stories we gradually learn the history of Kirovsk through the people who have lived there. A small town founded to house the workers in the nearby apatite mines, everything is poisoned by the pollution from the mineworks – the air, the water, the people, a huge proportion of whom die young from cancer. A place so ugly that the wife of the local Communist Party boss had a forest created from metal and plastic to provide a little beauty (another invention, but made entirely believable in the context). A place where many of the present-day residents have links to those dissidents exiled to the north under Stalin's regime. A place where being different has always been dangerous – where mothers believe the best gift they can give their daughters is to bring them up to be unremarkable.
This book will undoubtedly appear in my Book of the Year round-up – the stories are so wonderful I really want to tell them all to you. The first story, Leopard – the one about the failed artist – blew me away with its power and deep humanity. It's moving, frightening and funny all at the same time. The writing is incredible – there are sentences which made me cry at the beginning and had me laughing by the end, and vice versa. The pacing is perfect, slowly stripping the layers away to reveal, not the simple core of the character, but his entire complexity – the mix of fear and courage that have defined his actions and will determine his fate. Sobbed buckets, I did! And yet I laughed too, in places, and the ending left me with a mix of hope and despair – a belief that redemption is possible, but only remotely.
And this sets the tone for the rest. Some of the stories are tragic, some more uplifting, but none are monotone – each has moments of heartbreak and, not joy perhaps, but fellowship and humour, humanity breaking through in even the most inhumane circumstances. The characterisation is superb throughout – so many characters and all very different, but each ringing entirely true; no real heroes or villains, just people trying to get through their lives as best they can. Family is at the heart of it, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, brothers, lovers. Marra's sense of history is impeccable as we see the changes in society over the decades, and he matches it with changes to the language he uses in each different time period. In format, the book is designed like an old mixed cassette tape, with an A- and B-side, each consisting of four longer stories, and an “interval” in the middle, made up of short sections which explain the reason for the format and provide many of the links that eventually bring the thing together into one complete and immensely satisfying whole.
I listened to the Audible audiobook version, and the narration is wonderful – if you can take audiobooks, then I highly recommend listening to this one rather than, or as well as, reading it. Each of the narrators speaks with a Russian accent, and each deals brilliantly with the changes in tone between emotionalism and humour, not overplaying either but letting the words speak for themselves. I often struggle to concentrate on audiobooks, but not this one – it held my attention through every word, and despite the complexity of all the links I never found myself lost. It took me a while to attune to each voice – there are three narrators, two male and one female – but once I had, it seemed in each case as if no other voice could have spoken these words. A stunning performance of a stunning book – my highest recommendation for this one.
NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.