|Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A Jewish girl flees to St Petersburg just ahead of the Russian Revolution not realising what's ahead politically, culturally or, indeed, personally. A well-researched tale set in a fascinating era and, yes, tissues will be required!|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 480||Date: April 2014|
|External links: Author's website|
Inna Feldman is in the Kiev theatre the night that Prime Minister Stolypin is assassinated in front of the Tsar. Fearing the retribution against the Jews in general and being picked out as a suspect in particular, Inna flees to St Petersburg and her landlord's cousin Yasha. Her arrival causes complications. Not only is she unexpected but Yasha is a revolutionary, a dangerous occupation in Russia during 1911. The family that Yasha is living with takes her in anyway, unaware that darker times are ahead for all of them.
If any author is qualified to write about political unrest it's Vanora Bennett. Vanora isn't only (only?!) an author but also a journalist who has covered political, military and religious conflict around the world. In fact Vanora was in Russia during the fall of communism which partially inspired her writing Midnight. (Not to be confused with the Harry Palmer film of the same name by the way.) For not only does the novel go back to cover the birth of Soviet communism, the family Vanora stayed with are the inspiration for the family who practically adopt Inna: the Lemans.
In the novel the Lemans try to remain happy despite the worsening living conditions that the slide towards revolution brings. They're simple artisans - their skill in violin making raises them above the poverty line - but there are times in every nation's life when such pursuits become less important than survival.
Inna is an innocent. Ok, she's intelligent and manages to travel to St Petersburg on stolen papers. However she also has an air of unknowing extending not only to the state of the country but also to matters a lot closer to home. In this way she's the perfect foil for Yasha, the adventurer who's passionate about the struggle for a new nation and a dream that, for many, didn't materialise in the way they hoped. (You may have already guessed but just in case, this is a great novel for hinting at doom and gloom ahead!)
Talking about stolen papers, Vanora tacitly invites us to compare the Russian brand of anti-Semitism with the Nazis'. We may know about the pogroms and what we would now call ethnic cleansing, but Vanora communicates the fear that pervaded the everyday pursuits. Even going outside the house for a walk could be dangerous if a suspicious official decided to use their powers to stop at will.
Throughout the story real figures mix with fictional as we watch the humble beginnings of Father Grigory, (better known to history by his surname alone) and those whose names are familiar in other ways. For instance those of us old enough to remember US film and television star Efrem Zimbalist Jnr may be surprised to hear Mr Z Senior mentioned and even more surprised to learn he was a famous Russian violin virtuoso. There's also one real person in the story who has a place in Vanora's heart for a different reason. Horace Wannick, the blustering English artist, is actually one of her relatives.
Jobbing portrait artist Horace becomes one of the corner stones of the story and, alongside Yasha and Inna, eventually provides a nail biting climax. He's an opportunist but that comes from having to stay one step ahead of starvation. However, he's not a man devoid of feelings, nor, indeed, helpful friendships as his alliance with Faberge proves.
Although the background love story isn't totally unpredictable, the excitement is as Vanora manages to sidestep the spoilers that history itself provides to give us an encyclopaedic and hugely satisfying read. It also made me really happy to be living in this country and moment in history, at least for the moment.
Thank you, Century, for providing us with a copy for review.
Further Reading: If you want to read more fiction about the Russian Revolution, we definitely recommend Cold Blood by James Fleming. If you want a good book about the sort of world that the children of the revolutionaries eventually inherited, try the equally excellent One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
You can read more book reviews or buy Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett at Amazon.com.
Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett is in the Top Ten Women's Fiction Books 2014.
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