Posted in Book Reviews

Solovyov and Larionov by Eugene Vodolazkin – Herald Review

Solovyov and Larionov

Solovyov and Larionov

Solovyov and Larionov

Eugene Vodolazkin

Translated by Lisa Hayden

Oneworld, £14.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

Eugene Vodolazkin, an award-winning author, was born in Kiev and now lives in St Petersburg, Russia. Solovyov and Larionov is his debut novel, although it is the third to be translated from Russian to English. It tells the story of Solovyov, a young history student at the tail end of the 20th Century, who is given an unusual topic for his thesis; the life of the Imperial General Larionov.

Solovyov has been living and studying in St Petersburg for some years, keen to leave his impoverished childhood behind and forge a new life for himself. He tends to be an observer of events, watching other people and analysing their actions and motives. He applies the same level of analysis to his studies and throws himself into the study of General Larionov. Solovyov’s need to carefully consider all the angles of a person or situation means that the novel progresses at a stately pace. At times this is a little frustrating but the expressive language that Vodolazkin employs, and the amusing asides, makes up for the lack of momentum. ‘In the eyes of the young Larionov, every movement his great-grandfather made, even the very knock of his peg leg on the parquet floor, was filled with a special dignity.’ The narrative voice is strong and imposing, demonstrating a confidence not often seen in debut novels. ‘What, one might ask, unites two such dissimilar individuals as the historian Solovyov and the General Larionov, if of course it is permissible to speak of uniting a budding young researcher and a battle-weary commander who, furthermore, is no longer on this earth?’

Solovyov learns that General Larionov was a distinguished, and notoriously bloody, commander in the White Russian army during the Russian Civil War. He became a heroic figure for the Imperialists but intriguingly was allowed to live out his life in the new Soviet Union without his past Tsarist loyalties being used against him. Instead, to Solovyov’s amazement, he appears to have been left alone and even given a pension by the Soviets. The General settles in the Crimean resort of Yalta, spending his days on the beach looking out to the Black Sea. When he dies, he leaves behind a memoir, but it is incomplete. Solovyov travels to Yalta to try and track down pages rumoured to have been lost.

No doubt, a more intimate knowledge of Russian tertiary education and research communities would reveal many more insider jokes, but Lisa Hayden’s translation is full of Vodolazkin’s wry humour. ‘In her case, this was not a matter of the historian’s external features, something the scholarly community permits itself to mock, due to her height (187 centimeters) and the emergence of a mustache after the age of forty.’ Solovyov does not escape his dry wit either. On a visit to the beach at Yalta, a novelty for Solovyov who grew up in the interior of Russia, a place known only by the train station name, Kilometer 715, provides Vodolazkin with an opportunity to gently poke fun at the young man’s naivety on forgetting to bring fresh underpants with him. ‘After Solovyov sat down to buckle his sandals, the contour of his swimsuit developed on the back of his shorts, as if on wrinkled photographic paper.’

While in Yalta, Solovyov meets Zoya, whose mother was an assistant to the General in his later years, providing a living link to the General. She reminds Solovyov of his first sexual experiences back in Kilometer 715, timed to coincide with a train passing so that his grandmother wouldn’t hear what he was up to with a local girl. The self-possessed Zoya, who works at the Chekhov Museum, is just one of many surprises that await Solovyov in Yalta.

With its humour and philosophical reflections – do we ever learn from our past mistakes, as humans and as nations? – this is an ambitious undertaking for a first novel. It is to Vodolazkin’s credit that he pulls it off, creating a substantial, beguiling work that engages the reader on several levels. It encompasses a detective story, historical events, and even a little romance.

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Posted in Book Reviews

Here Comes the Sun, Book Oxygen Review

Here Comes the Sun

Nicole Dennis-Benn

Published by Oneworld 16 March 2017

346pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

Nicole Dennis-Benn goes behind the bright sunshine, golden sands and blue seas of Jamaica that visitors see to explore the lives of four very different women. Beyond the tourist traps, many Jamaicans are struggling to survive as new developments threaten their already impoverished lives. Those who can leave, those who can’t wait and worry.

Margot lives in a shack in River Bank, with her mother Dolores, younger sister Thandi, and her silent grandmother Merle. Margot works at a tourist hotel, supplementing her salary by providing ‘personal services’ to the rich men who book in. Dolores sells souvenirs and trinkets to the visitors who arrive on cruise ships, but business isn’t good. Both women work to send fifteen-year-old Thandi to an expensive school, vowing that she will have a better life than either of them have known. Thandi, who has to deal with her mother and sister’s expectations that she will become a doctor and leave River Bank far behind, wants to be an artist. She also fall in love with a local boy of whom Dolores disapproves.

Margot may prostitute herself with guests and her boss, but it is Verdene, the village outcast, who holds her heart. Verdene lives alone in a pink house, shunned because she was caught with another girl at college and sent abroad in disgrace. Verdene came home when her mother died but she is still considered a witch by all save Margot. Their love puts them both in serious danger. The girl that Verdene was with at college was raped and murdered when she went back to her home town. Verdene worries that Margot may be subject to the same fate, so their affair is conducted under the cover of darkness.

Dennis-Benn excels in laying bare the love/hate nature of the relationships between the women. Margot and Dolores are constantly sniping at each other, trying to score points and have the last word. There is an unspoken anger hanging in the air between them that is almost tangible. Dolores feels that life has dealt her a bad hand and can’t understand why her daughters aren’t more grateful to her. Margot feel she owes Dolores nothing, having sacrificed her young body to earn the money that will be her passport out of River Bank and away from Dolores. Both women adore Thandi but the daily pressure they put upon her to do well at school is taking its toll.

Dennis-Benn roots the story firmly in Jamaica by using local patois in speech which has a musicality and poetry all of its own. Through Thandi she shows the discrimination against girls with dark skins and the lengths some will go to in order to have the light brown skin that is considered beautiful. It is another desperately sad example of healthy young women being told they are not enough in themselves.

Here Comes the Sun is a wonderful exploration of the very particular world in which these four women find themselves. All of them are looking for a better life away from the poverty of River Bank, all of them wanting to share in the seemingly perfect lives of the rich tourists. It is a very different view of Jamaica, but it feels more honest and authentic than the glossy travel brochures.

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