I have never done a book review before. I don’t know how to go about it, so, please, indulge me.
Where to start…
Being the opinionated person I am, the best starting point seems to be the conclusion:
The book is brilliant. Everyone should go out and read it! NOW!!!
(Is that too direct?)
Political junkies in particular (and, I suspect a few of my readers do have at least a tiny interest in politics) will have fun with the quirky interpretation Mr. Green throws on some of the background events in the shadows of perhaps the most important cultural event of the second half of the 20th century – the start of the Cold War and descent of the Iron Curtain!
It is well written.
It is well researched.
There are no internal inconsistencies (at least, not that I noticed on a first read – and, that one’s a biggie for me!).
The characters seem very human, very real. They get inside your ‘monkeysphere’.
The writing style is particularly effective in making this historical novel ‘come alive’!
What am I talking about?
Imagine an established journalist and blogger (!) is contacted by a mysterious man, who has followed his the journalist’s work and now trusts him to tell ‘his story’ – his time is short and he does not wish to take it into the grave with him. Then, ‘mystery man’ sends our narrator a set of recordings in which he recounts his life (yes, a narration within a narration – it is symmetry, as the story contains mystery within mystery…).
His story starts in pre-WWII Belarus (White Russia: our protagonist is White Russian, just like Marko Ramius) and skillfully paints the atmosphere of fear and despair as Stalin’s ‘black crows’ terrorize the population. I have grown up behind the Iron Curtain, but in a much, much ‘milder’ time. Nothing as intense as what was happening in Belarus then. But, during the description of the ‘dreaded knock’ on the door (the secret police never rang the bell – they knocked) – I was transported back into my early childhood, where I feared ‘the knock’. I was too young to appreciate the full meaning of it, but, growing up a child of a dissident, I could taste the fear. OK – you may think me a wuss, but… now, safe for decades, I still have an unreasonably high level of adrenalin pumped into my veins whenever a neighbour (thinking it less disruptive) knocks on my door instead of ringing the bell. The description of this atmosphere is exactly right on – even if my experiences pale in comparison, the dread he describes is real.
Then, the Nazis invade. Our ‘mystery man’ gets stuck in a nightmare. His appearance (pale, blond and blue-eyed) and education mean the Nazis don’t target him for extermination and turn him into their slave, instead. As he witnesses the genocide – with horrible, unbelievable cruelty, he grew numb. But, he was the archetypal survivor – so he found a way to survive, and more.
Again, Mr. Green’s narrative captures the atmosphere so well, it is frightening. Without going into long-winded personal tangents, let me just say that the narrative of this part of the story is so gripping, his protagonist so believable (without crossing over that ‘manipulative’ line), I am completely ‘sold’ on the veracity of the story! Of course, the ‘journalist’s’ frequent footnotes (something he employs throughout the novel) which verify (or not) the facts, as presented in the narrative, is a mightily effective tool in making you identify with the ‘journalist’ narrator: hearing the story, checking the facts, slowly but surely becoming convinced that the recordings are ‘the real thing’.
The move from Belarus to the Canadian Embassy is a little abrupt – actually, it is perhaps the ‘weakest’ point in the story. But, the narrative style saves the day: our ‘journalist’ may doubt the narration here, but it is within the realms of what could be explained by ‘mystery man’s’ human weakness and potential ‘fibbing’ to hide something personal…
Once in Ottawa, the ‘real action’ takes place: espionage, Hoover, Mackenzie King, beautiful women, murder, flight… a ‘historical mystery’ interpreted in a new, radical way!
I dare not write more, for fear of giving it all away and spoiling the fun. Let me just say that, up to and including the epilogue, I am left baffled as to (and eager to figure out) how much of this IS true, and how much is fiction.
I think it’s time for me to follow up on some of the footnotes – and other things!