Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sashenka by Simon Montefiore

A treat for those who love Russian history, Montefiore’s first foray into fiction follows the story of Sashenka Zeitlin from 1916 to 1939 and finally to 1994. We first meet her as an idealistic school girl who despises her family’s bourgeois lifestyle. Mentored by her Bolshevik uncle one summer, she joins the revolutionary cause and becomes his courier.

In the section on 1939, Sashenka is married to a party apparatchik with the NKVD, and they have survived the worst years of the Stalin purges and both are highly successful. But Sashenka, disillusioned with the drivel she must publish as editor of Soviet Life and Proletarian Housekeeping, embarks upon an affair with an idealistic writer which ultimately jeopardizes her entire family.

The third section of the book jumps forward to 1994, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, where we meet Katinka Vinsky, a young historian, who is hired by Sashenka's son to try to discover the truth about what really happened to Sashenka and her family. This voyage of discovery unearths some horrible and surprising truths.

I could not put this book down, it is both suspenseful and historical, truly a terrific find for those who love 20th century history. If you are tempted to think the author’s descriptions of Stalinist times are exaggerated, I would direct you to some of his historical works: Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (which won the History Book of the Year Prize at the 2004 British Book Awards) and Young Stalin (which won the 2007 Costa Biography Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Political Literature).

These books are worldwide best sellers and have been translated into over 30 languages. Montefiore has a firm grasp of Soviet history and has been able to successfully translate that knowledge into a wonderful, moving and enthralling first novel. I hope to see more fiction from him in the future.

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