The quote on the front cover, from Louis de Bernieres, describes this book as ‘…the most original… I have read for years’. I was a bit dubious about that as virtually every book in the stores these days claims something like that – but boy! was I wrong.
The book is set in 1900s Siberia and involves a bewildering array of characters including cossack soldiers, invading Czech armies, castrates, ‘whirling dervishes’, communists, a female photographer, and a cannibal. Try finding another book with that for a cast list! ‘Original’ is probably the understatement of the century.
The basic story is of Anna Petrovna, a widowed photographer who’s moved to a remote Siberian town with her son, for no apparent reason; and of Lt Josef Mutz, a Czech soldier who’s become disillusioned with efforts to invade Russia and who has fallen in love with Anna. Into their lives tumbles Samarin, an escaped prisoner of war who has tracked his way to the town through the Siberian wilderness, and who tells tales of a vicious cannibalistic criminal who is following him. That’s the simplified version. In reality the book veers between ‘present’ and past, with the backstories of Samarin, Anna and Anna’s ex-husband, a dashing cossack cavalryman, interwoven into the strands of their present-day lives. The twist at the end is both massive and wholly unexpected and makes you look back over the rest of the book to see how you could possibly have been so misled. It’s all very clever.
The author, James Meek, is a journalist by trade and it’s easy to see that he writes non-fiction for a living. The book’s style is heavily narrative with long descriptive passages and a slightly dry tone, and particularly in the first few chapters it’s hard to ‘see’ the characters through the rather dense prose. It’s well worth persevering, though, because those characters do come to life and the book itself is magical, mysterious, and sweeping, and matches the wide Russian landscapes to perfection.