Once I start a book, I almost always finish it, no matter how bad it may seem at
first, as there's always the chance that might, just might, get better.
Nine times out of ten my initial impression was correct, and the book ended up
being a waste of time. Every now and then, though, my determination is rewarded.
Such is the case with Simon Montefiore's first novel, Sashenka, the
second half of which is a brilliantly written, impeccably researched work of
The first third of Sashenka is set in 1916-1917, in a St. Petersburg on the verge of revolution. It's a perfect time and place to use as the setting for a historical fiction novel, a fascinating era with a wealth of intrigue, politics, corruption, and a whole host of other historic circumstances and people that could be incorporated into a marvelous story; but Montefiore does not take advantage of the time or place. Although his main character is heavily involved in fomenting what is ultimately a bloody revolution, this section of the book lacks any sense of drama or danger. Montefiore does do an outstanding job of describing St. Petersburg and its society, but it's not adequate to make the rest of this section come to life; it's too static, added to which the dialog is melodramatic and puerile, and the characters have no depth or originality. If there were any way to skip this section and still understand the rest of the book, I'd recommend doing so, but unfortunately the reader must wade through this almost painfully bad section to reach the real meat of the novel.
The story leaves St. Petersburg soon after the Revolution, fast-forwarding twenty-two years. Sashenka is married with children, and she is among the party elite. Initially the reader may experience frustration that the author chose to omit the intervening years. Not only does the reader want to know how Sashenka reached this point in her life, but there's the sense that the reader has missed all the action, as the story resumes after Lenin's death, the ensuing power struggles and Stalin's purges. This disappointment is short-lived, however, as the story quickly loses it superficiality and delves into the paranoia of the Stalin regime. The reader gets so wrapped up in the story's present that he or she no longer cares about its past. This section of Sashenka bears so little resemblance to its earlier chapters that the reader is tempted to think it could have been written by a different author. Montefiore's literary talents soar here as he constructs a credible, moving heroine thrust into absolutely terrifying circumstances. Sashenka's emotions are palpable and utterly convincing. The author creates a level of heart-pounding suspense difficult to achieve and rarely found in historical fiction novels. The book becomes completely absorbing from this point onward.
The final chapters are set in 1994, another fifty-five years in the future. While not as breathlessly exciting as the previous section, it's still involving to the point that the reader will be reluctant to put the book down. Montefiore does a fine job portraying the complexities of deciphering Russia's past, still a daunting task decades after Stalin's death. The author's personal experience in obtaining information in such a secretive environment is evident, as is his understanding of the Russian psyche that has created such an atmosphere.
Sashenka is, in short, a remarkable novel with an unforgettable protagonist. I found myself haunted by this book for quite some time after I turned the final page. Historian Montefiore shows much promise as a novelist, particularly if he can avoid the banalities pervading the early sections of this, his first fictional attempt. This book is sure to please readers interested in Russia's recent history.
Image: A photograph of Rasputin believed to be from 1908.
About the Author
Simon Sebag Montefiore is a historian of Russia and author of Potemkin: Catherine the Great's Imperial Partner; Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar; and the bestselling Young Stalin, awarded the 2007 Costa Biography Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography. Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Montefiore lives in London with his wife, the novelist Santa Montefiore, and their two children.
This review was originally published in January 2009, and has been updated for the November 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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