An epic for our times

25 March 2017

9:00 AM

25 March 2017

9:00 AM

Trailing rave US reviews, fan letters from Yann Martel and Khaled Hosseini and a reputation as ‘Doctor Zhivago for the 21st century’, comes this outstanding historical saga from debut novelist Sana Krasikov. It’s a dazzling and addictive piece of work from an author born in the Soviet Republic of Georgia whose family emigrated to New York when she was eight. Not only is this novel accomplished and packed with believable detail and entertaining dialogue, it also feels curiously relevant, tip-toeing around the complicated relationship between the United States and Russia during and after the Cold War.

Raised in 1930s Brooklyn, Florence Fein escapes a stifling existence with a seemingly glamorous job entertaining Soviet dignitaries on business trips to the US. Her new comrades seem full of life and self-belief. So when she falls in love with one of them, it’s not much of a stretch for her to consider a new life in Moscow. Under the spell of the bright new Soviet future, she embraces the system, becomes hopelessly entangled and ends up in a labour camp. Her American passport is confiscated and her young son Julian is raised in an orphanage, her last words to him in English being: ‘Don’t believe what they say about me and don’t make trouble.’

Julian takes up the tale decades later. Unable to enter university in the USSR because he is Jewish, he heads back to his mother’s hated homeland as a student, only returning to Moscow much later when his own adult son is there to take advantage of all the emerging riches of the New Russia in 2008. It’s up to Julian to figure out what sort of person his mother really was and how this affects his feelings towards his own identity.

Krasikov zigzags effortlessly back and forward between countries and time frames, allowing us to trace Florence’s story through Julian’s eyes, using the official records that document her arrest and ‘betrayal of the Soviet cause’. We become as torn as he is over whether she should be viewed as heroine, victim or villain.

But Florence is an extremely attractive compromised figure: she does some incredibly stupid things but she’s impossible to write off and you can’t quite say that you wouldn’t have done the same. This is the real skill of this novel, which appears to be about family, loyalty and dreams but which is really about ideology and the price of self-delusion. As an intelligent literary commentary on Russo-American relations of the past century, it’s unparalleled. Or as President Trump might say: very nice.

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