Farewell, Mama Odessa is a musing on migration, displacement and the strange world of Soviet bureaucracy.
The blurb speaks of telling the stories of adjustment to a new life in the free world. The focus, though, is very much more on the circumstances that led to two Jewish men independently to seek to emigrate to the West: Boris, a young journalist who is unable to report as he would wish on the failings of the state; and Yurik, an average guy who has been caught with stolen leather to support his private sideline of making shoes. Fully half the book is taken with the back stories and an exploration of bureaucracy; the anti-semitic discrimination; and everyday life in Odessa. The narrative pretty much ends then with the journey out. The remaining pages comprise letters from Uncle Ilya, an emigre who tells Boris of his first experiences in the west; and more Kafkaesque vignettes of life back in the USSR of the various fellow emigres that Boris and Yurik meet.
The book is pitched as a novel, but there are elements of it that feel like short stories, comic sketches, and political essay.
This might sound heavy going, but the tone is light wry humour. And the political tone is more neutral than one might expect. The Soviet Union is portrayed as bureaucratic and inefficient; there is a sense that people are not in full control of their destiny and that their lives could be upturned on a whim, but that most people were comradely and decent. Bureaucrats could be bribed and rules could be played. Meanwhile, life in the west was neither as bountiful nor as venal as the emigres had expected.
While the narrative follows Boris and Yurik, the most interesting elements are Uncle Ilya’s letters. These offer a depth of reflection that one suspects is Emil Draitser’s own perspective (he says in his foreword that both Boris and Ilya represent his own experience at different stages of his emigration journey). This is a perspective of part bemusement and part rapid learning. There are some teachable moments, but mostly an understanding that east and west are not poles apart; that the human instinct for self-preservation is universal and that emigres can get homesick, even when they have supposedly fled from oppression and ended up in the free world.
Farewell, Mama Odessa is an odd book, but one that is both enlightening and rewarding.
AD Miller was longlisted for the Booker Prize for Snowdrops – a brilliant story about a young British man who became enmeshed in intrigue in Russia and then walked away unscathed, seemingly oblivious to the damage he has caused to those he left behind.
In Independence Square, it’s the other way around. Simon Davey is a middle ranking diplomat – deputy head of mission in the Ukraine – caught up in events in late 2004 in the aftermath of a stolen presidential election. The orange revolution may not be well remembered in the West, and even those of us who do remember it were probably mystified by it at the time. The choice ostensibly had been between the establishment government with close links to Moscow and a new brand of nationalist with Western leanings. The candidates Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych – both came across as power-hungry, self-serving and engaging in dog-whistle politics. The impression I had was that the choice was what colour tie you wanted your chief crook to wear.
So, Simon finds himself embroiled in events, apparently trying to nudge them in the direction of the revolutionaries.
The narrative keeps switching from the revolution to the present day (well, 2017) back in London. Simon appears to have been sacked following some scandal – the nature of which is initially not apparent. He runs into Olesya, one of his contacts during the revolution. He follows her in the hope of getting some kind of explanation of what happened in Kiev that led to his downfall.
I’m afraid I found the novel quite hard to follow, not helped by finding it hard to get into. Simon doesn’t seem to have any particular character; he is an everyman – some strains on his marriage but that’s just a standard diplomatic trope. It was very difficult to fathom the various Ukrainians – who they were, which side they were on, why they were engaging with Simon in the first place. I’m sure it is all there in the text, but the narrative style is to let facts slowly emerge from the fog – with the trouble being that the importance of characters and events is quite easy to miss. Then, even when a section does seem to make sense, the narrative chops away to focus on something else. Any tension dissipates.
Perhaps if you knew Kiev or followed Ukrainian politics this would come together. Perhaps you could marvel at how accurately AD Miller captures the place or the spirit of the time. For me, though, it felt like a whole lot of meetings; a whole lot of glimpsing unidentified moustachioed men in the distance whispering into someone’s ear; and lots of scheming – but very little direction.
Independence Square is not Snowdrops.
2.5 stars rounded up because it's Christmas.
The third (final?) instalment in the Red Sparrow series is perhaps the weakest of the novels.
What made the series readable was the personal chemistry between Dominika Egorova - a Russian SVR operative - and Nate Nash - a CIA operative. And specifically, it was their chemistry as they engaged in a series of field engagements in and around Europe.
In The Kremlin's Candidate, Dominika has become ever more senior in the SVR and has personal access to President Putin. This means much of the narrative is pitched at a strategic level rather than in spy-ops on the streets. Frankly, it is not as interesting. Readers want to know about hairs on drawers, hidden bugs, spy dust. They don't necessarily want to know about the strategy behind supporting the PKK to destabilise the Turkish Government, thereby undermining the NATO alliance.
And as Dominika has become more senior, she has left Nate behind. He is a bit part player in The Kremlin's Candidate as Dominika deals with a revolving cast of more senior CIA players. It's just not the same.
There are also some bizarre continuity errors. Dominika's ability to see people's aurae, for example, starts to wobble as Nate variously has a purple and a crimson aura. We are told that Dominika has only ever seen one black aura before when we know she has seen more. The timeline also seems to be wobbly as Dominika seems to have aged whereas Nate is still on probation. And there are some things that happen quite obviously as plot devices, there is expository dialogue and the recipes at the end of chapters have become quite tiresome.
Despite these failings, there is still a broadly competent story set out - if the reader can turn a blind eye to the occasional gratuitous and puerile sexual references. The pacing is as slow as in the previous texts which does offer space for scene setting. This scrapes into 3 star territory, but it is a disappointing end to a series that started off much better.
When you’ve written a successful book, the temptation is to write the same book again. Palace of Treason is very similar to Red Sparrow - we re-engage with Nate Nash, dashing young CIA officer, and Dominika Egorova, Russian SVR femme fatale. They continue to have ill-advised physical relations with each other and with anything else with a pulse. We know this will not end well.
More baddies and moles pop up from nowhere. Some of these baddies are delightfully grotesque if somewhat caricatured. And just like in Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews has no difficulty in killing off leading characters.
Dominika continues to see auras. The pace continues to be slow. There is more repetition including, perhaps necessarily, some rehearsing of events of the first novel. There is also some disconcerting jumping of timelines as points of view alter - creating some situations where the reader has already been told the outcome of an episode that is then set out in some detail. This feels clumsy.
And The Palace of Treason is just as salacious as Red Sparrow.
But also like Red Sparrow, the plot carries the clunky writing and expository dialogue. This is very much a sequel - it would probably feel weird if you read this one first - but if the first one floated your boat (it didn’t float everyone’s boat) then this probably will too.
Red Sparrow is an imperfect thriller, but nevertheless worth reading.
The basic premise is that two agents embark on their careers - Nate Nash is a young CIA agent, posted to Moscow and desperate to make an impact - and Dominika Egorova, enveigled into becoming a honey-trap agent by her wicked uncle in the Russian SVR. Inevitably the two hit it off.
The story is a constant flow of agents and double agents, rooting out moles and trying to use counter-espionage to double-down on double-crossing deals. It’s quite a slow moving novel which allows plenty of space for conveying the day-to-day life in modern Russia, in intelligence jobs and in embassies around the world. It also gives adequate space to ensure the complexities of the various plots and schemes are fully understood - there’s none of the last-minute breathlessness that blight so many thrillers and leave readers wondering what happened.
But there are flaws too. The slow pacing does include quite a bit of repetition. Characters are re-introduced (right down to appearances) every time they pop up in another point of view. There’s also quite a degree of salaciousness. Yes, Dominika attended Sparrow School to learn how to seduce foreign agents, but there’s a fine line between authenticity and pornography. Similarly, some of the violence feels overdone. These aspects are likely to appeal to teenage male readers but may irritate other readers.
And then there’s Dominika’s synaesthesia. She can see the colour of people’s auras which gives her a special insight into their mood/character. I never quite bought this - and given that people’s auras never seem to change colour, it may be a useful tool for baselining a relationship but doesn’t seem to offer much for telling how someone is behaving in a specific situation. Ah well, it’s a bit of fun.
Then there are the recipes at the end of each chapter. The idea is that a food mentioned in the chapter has its recipes included in a text box before the next chapter. At first this is endearing, but after a while it feels distracting - plus there’s a suspicion that some of the foods are only mentioned in the text because of the need to have a recipe.
Overall, though, the drama outweighs the negatives and the story is worth reading. I like the idea of a modern Russian secret service trying to recreate the empire of the Soviet era or, perhaps even, the czarist era. The ending manages to be both reassuringly predictable but also shocking.
Good holiday reading - especially while touring through the Stans.
I will persevere with the other novels in the trilogy.