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Simon Sebag-Montefiore is better known as a historian than a writer of sweeping romantic epics and this is his first novel and the first of a trilogy of novels set in Stalinist Russia. This one os set in three different time periods, 1916 and the lead up to the Russian Revolution where the 16 year old Sashenka, priviledged daughter of a rich Jewish businessman is working secretly for the Bolshevieks, 1939 where Sashenka, utterly loyal party member, is married and has managed to skate unscathed through the Stalinist purges of the last three years and 1994 when a young History student is asked to research a family history.

 

Simon S-S is obviously an expert historian and in places his sheer skill in evoking a place, a period is absolutely suberb, particularly in the section set in the Stalinist era. There you could feel the uneasy mix of complacency that as a good Party member nothing was ever going to happen to you combined with a constant unease and refusal to acknowledge what was really going on as well as the memory of friends who had become 'non-people'. However I couldn't help feeling he took Writing Romantic Saga 101 lessons from his wife, the novelist Santa Montefiore, for the romantic/sagaish elements often don't seem to sit very easily. He gets flowery, dwells too much on looks and Sashenka's worry that her bosom is "too noticeable" (I cannot recall any of my three daughters or their friends ever complaining aout too much frontage when they were 16!) - apparently the last two books in the series are more in thriller mode and I suspect they will suit his style better. In addition the last section has far too many unlikely co-incidences and relies strongly on people living to iimprobably great ages (one is 102 or more, others mid 90's).

 

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book which I wouldn't have picked up if it hadn't been our book group Summer Read. With all its faults, it's still a very good read and the middle section is truly memorable.

 

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