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

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter – Herald Review

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter
John Pipkin
Bloomsbury, £18.99

AMERICAN author John Pipkin’s second novel is set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and chiefly concerns the fate of two women called Caroline. Caroline Herschel is based on a real person, while Caroline Ainsworth is Pipkin’s invention. Their stories are set in a time when exploration of the sciences flourished, especially the study of the night skies, provoked by The Great Six-Tailed Comet of 1744. Visible in London for weeks, it scared some into believing, “that there is a hole in the sky’s vault leaking the bright essence of heaven itself.” It was also a time of revolution. The recent French Revolution was descending into a blood bath while discontent in Ireland grew.

Caroline Ainsworth has grown up in the comfort of a grand house in rural Ireland with her widowed father, Arthur. He has become obsessed with astronomy and Caroline, considered unmarriageable because she has a withered arm, becomes his willing helper. She is faster than her father when it comes to the complex mathematics involved in plotting and predicting where the planets should be. Together they dedicate their lives to probing the night skies and recording their observations. Arthur is convinced that a new planet is waiting to be found, one he calls Theodosium, after his late wife, Theodosia. When musician and amateur astronomer William Herschel declares that he has found it, Arthur loses all reason. He looks at the sun through his telescope in a vain attempt to prove Herschel wrong and before long is blind. When Arthur sickens and dies, Caroline finds out the truth of her origins. Left penniless and feeling betrayed by Arthur, she leaves for London and a new life.

For anyone not familiar with astronomy, but also for those who are, Pipkin’s detailed explanations of how Arthur and Caroline study the night skies will prove fascinating. Their instruments are basic and their telescopes are crudely made by local tradesmen. The long, slow process of casting and polishing the special mirrors used in telescopes reflects the the long, slow process of mapping the planets and stars.

Caroline Herschel was the sister of William Herschel who became Astronomer Royal to the court of George III. Initially, William came to Bath to pursue a career in music but soon his hobby became all-consuming after he discovered the planet Uranus. Caroline’s growth had been stunted by contracting typhus and she had the tell-tale scars of smallpox on her face. Like the other Caroline, she was judged unsuitable for marriage and became a drudge in her mother’s house. William brought her to England and she became his housekeeper and soon his assistant as they investigated the skies. Caroline meticulously noted down William’s observations, what she called, “minding the heavens”. Although overshadowed by her brother, Caroline would go on to discover eight comets and received a small stipend for her work from the king. She was the first woman to be paid for her work in astronomy.

Arthur Ainsworth was obsessed with discovering binary stars, pairs of stars that help astronomers map the heavens. Pipkin weaves this theme of couples into the novel. Caroline and Arthur Ainsworth, Caroline and William Herschel, Arthur and William, and most prominently, Caroline and Caroline, whose lives closely mirror each other. Then there is Caroline Ainsworth and Finn, the blacksmith’s nephew with whom she falls in love and who brings her back to Ireland as rebellion breaks out.

The 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule, inspired by the French and American revolutions, was a bloody and brutal affair that lasted four months. Pipkin does not shy away from describing the cruelty and horrors committed on both sides. As Finn is forced to join the rebels, Caroline Ainsworth patiently waits for his return.

Until the latter stages of the novel, it feels as if one strand of the story isn’t relevant and the effect is a little disjointed even when it is resolved. The tale is told in the third person, focalising on each of the main characters in turn. However, the authorial voice is strong which means that the characters sometimes feel as distant as the stars they observe.
Pipkin’s novel is a lyrical meditation on what it means to be human in an ever changing world. The vastness of the heavens is matched by the passions of the men and women who explore it. Beautifully written with layers touching on science, politics and social change, it is a novel to be savoured and not rushed.

Posted in Book Reviews

Dark Water – Herald Review

Review: Dark Water by Sara Bailey

Nightingale Editions, £8.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

Dark water is a diving term that is used when a diver no longer knows which way is up and which is down. It is a fitting title for Sara Bailey’s debut novel, a haunting tale of teenage obsession and betrayal where things are not quite as they first seem.
Helena returns to her childhood home on Orkney after many years away, a glossy metropolitan version of her former self. She is back to look after her father who is very ill, and to help her step-mother. As soon as she steps onto the island news of her return seems to spread by osmosis. This feature of life on a small island immediately sets the scene for the rest of the story. Bailey creates a suffocating atmosphere where secrets are almost impossible to keep. But there are some hidden truths yet to come to light, such as the mysterious disappearance Anastasia, Helena’s best friend, who never returned from a moonlight dare to swim between the ship wrecks around Orkney. Helena fled the island soon after Anastasia vanished, and her return dredges up painful memories.
The intense nature of the teenage friendship between Helena and Anastasia is worryingly obsessive; writing notes to each other in their own blood, and promising to stick together, “through sick and sin”. When boys enter their world, a fissure forms that slowly widens, stretching the girls’ loyalty to each other to breaking point.
Helena narrates most of the story, with some sections told in the third person, and it works well, giving characters such as Dylan, Helena’s first love, more breadth and depth. The flashbacks are particularly well handled with the wild swoops of over-confidence and then crippling shyness showing how confusing the mid-teenage years can be. The supporting characters are carefully drawn, especially Helena’s ailing father and worn-out step-mother. Gloria, a family friend and near-neighbour who has taken over Anastasia’s old home, is wonderfully blunt and pushy.

In Bailey’s hands, Orkney becomes a character in its own right. The very particular light, the constant wind and unpredictable weather, and the savage beauty of the landscape form a dramatic backdrop to her story. The scenes where the teenage girls skinny dip in the still-cold summer seas are dreamlike as they swim in and around the ship wrecks that once protected Orkney’s natural harbours from Nazi invasion. Lying on the rocks to dry out, they share their deepest secrets and hopes for their futures that lie far away from Orkney’s shores. Their plans always include each other.
This is not a fast-paced thriller but Bailey does control the flow of information skilfully, and it never drags or feels padded out. Instead, it is a slow-burn, psychological study that is both gripping and emotionally involving. It is well plotted and it is hard to believe that this is Bailey’s debut. It feels like a story that has waited a long time to be told and has resonances with her own recent return to Orkney after a long time away.

Posted in Book Reviews

The House on Bellevue Gardens – Book Oxygen Review

The House on Bellevue Gardens

Rachel Hore

Published by Simon & Schuster, 25 February 2016

464pp, hardcover, £14.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

 

Rachel Hore’s eighth novel is a warm tale of ordinary people navigating their way through the complexities of life in a big city. Each character narrates his or her own story, which gives a welcome sense of intimacy and brings their individual dilemmas into sharp focus.

In a quiet London square stands a charmingly shabby house, the only one that has not been split into flats. This is number eleven, Bellevue Gardens, home to Leonie Brett and her collection of waifs and strays needing some TLC in order to face the world again. Leonie charges nominal rents to her tenants and provides a shoulder to cry on for free.

Peter, an artist, lives in the basement and came as a sitting tenant when Leonie inherited the house from a close friend. He is gruff to the point of rudeness but Leonie knows he is troubled and feels responsible for him. Bela and Hari, an elderly couple, are quiet and almost invisible, rarely venturing out of their room. Then there is Rick, a shy young man who works in a supermarket but really wants to publish his graphic novels.

Leonie is pining for the return of her grandson, and is horrified to learn that her stay at Bellevue Gardens is under threat. The flashbacks to her life as a top model during the Swinging Sixties are fascinating. Falling for an up-and-coming photographer, Leonie is swept up in the excitement of the fashion world and soon the two become a formidable team. However, Leonie tires of the early starts and constant travelling and Hore precisely shows the disintegration of her marriage.

Two new arrivals at the house are Rosa, a Polish woman looking for her brother, Michal, and Stef, a nervous young woman who has lost her identity in a suffocating relationship with the controlling Oliver. The only way she can break away from him is to hide and Bellevue Gardens becomes her sanctuary. Slowly, she regains her sense of self and revives the plans and ambitions she had before Oliver took over her life. Stef’s story is sensitively handled although not wildly original, and Hore avoids any easy or schmaltzy solutions. Falling for Stef gives Rick the impetus to follow his own dreams which lie far away from supermarket shelves. Meanwhile Rosa is uncovering family secrets which she hopes will lead her to much-loved Michal and is surprised to find so much compassion in an alien city.

Hore blends her characters into an uplifting story of people gaining confidence from each other and discovering their path to happiness. There are obstacles in their way but each finds their courage to change and move on with their lives. Hore’s writing style is relaxed and conversational which results in a tale that glides by easily with its message of courage, inspiration, and the right to follow your own star. This novel would make a great holiday read with its many story strands and cosy setting.

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