BookBrowse Reviews White Blood by James Fleming

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White Blood

by James Fleming

White Blood by James Fleming X
White Blood by James Fleming
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2007, 368 pages

    Paperback:
    Sep 2008, 368 pages

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Beautifully written, richly imagined, by turns savage and tender, set in revolutionary Russia

Fleming explores the clash between tradition and progress, class and culture in White Blood, a gritty novel, intensely flavored with both the elegance and terror of Russia on the brink of civil war, that lures the reader in with an almost lighthearted opening travelogue but that inexorably gathers steam, drawing to a thrilling, emotionally exhausting conclusion.

Charlie Doig, son of a Scots father and Russian mother, is brought up near Smolensk until about 12-years of age when he and his mother move to England where his father plans to join them. Unfortunately, Doig senior catches the plague and dies before joining his family in London, leaving his proud Russian wife penniless, living on the charity of relatives; and his son with a childish desire to revenge his father's death, and make loads of money into the bargain. Young Charlie's plan is to capture the species of flea that killed his father and force them to breed so that he can infect rats, make serum and thus make his fortune. As is the case with most 12-year-old grand schemes, the plan fails but in the process Charlie discovers a passion for nature, and thus is a naturalist born.

Within a few pages we've skipped forward a decade to find a larger-than-life Doig apprenticed to the celebrated naturalist Hartwig Goetz as they travel through the Far East looking for rare species, such as a small but hitherto unknown beetle nicknamed "The Wiz", whose heroic capture in a post office in Burma makes Doig a legend in naturalists circles and sends this man of big appetites into such excitement that he can only be sated by a frenzied session at the local brothel involving a number of lithesome wenches and a bucket of eels.

"Six foot two, strong in the shoulder and broad in the chest. Wide Russian face, straight dark hair, stubble. Eyes of blue: not the loony blue of the German philosopher but steadier, more brutal, with flecks of iron and schist. Powerful high-boned wrists. Mangling stride. A rugged obnoxious nose. And proper Russian balls that swing like the planets. Nothing of the gherkin down there." - Doig's description of himself, from the opening pages of White Blood.

Thankfully, having established Doig's lusty nature in the opening chapters, Fleming allows the eels and other accoutrement to be put to one side as the story moves to Charlie's mother-country, to which he returns as war breaks out with his newly acquired Mongolian sidekick, Kobi. The family home, The Pink House, near Smolensk in the West of Russia (a photo of 1912 Smolensk), is occupied by a number of family relics and retainers, and also by Doig's cousin Elizaveta who he hasn't seen for a decade but who, in keeping with his character, he falls head over heels in love with. Inconveniently, she is affianced to another, a mutual childhood acquaintance who has become a war hero, but these are unsettled times and, happily for Doig, the fiancé is assassinated just days before the wedding. Not one to miss a chance Doig makes his move with such speed that questions are asked as to whether he might have been involved with the assassination, but no matter, Doig and Elizaveta are in wedded bliss.

The day after the wedding two soldiers arrive asking for shelter. Are these soldiers who they seem, or is something more sinister afoot? As the plot thickens following the arrest of the Tsar and his family, Doig must ask himself at what point the Pink House stops being a safe haven and becomes a trap no better than that which he uses to catch elegant bugs; but can he persuade his new wife to leave in time to escape the Bolshoviks?

Interesting To Note: The title White Blood presumably alludes to the term White Russian which has multiple meanings. It can refer to a member of the Russian military force that opposed the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (1918-21). It can also refer to a Russian who emigrated from Russia during or shortly after the Civil War. Lastly, it can refer to a person from Belarus (bela meaning white); Belarus is close to Smolensk, the location of the fictional Pink House.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2007, and has been updated for the October 2008 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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