Deathless by Catherine M. Valente

deathlessFrom the first chapter of Deathless, I was ordering, pleading with myself to slow down and not to read so fast. But I couldn’t help gobbling the story down in one lavish gulp. Valente has written book that is both beautifully written and exactly the kind of book I love to read.

Set against the backdrop of Russia in the twentieth century, the story follows Marya Morevna as she watches the world change from a narrow house in Leningrad. A young man who is neither young or a man knocks on her door; he is Koschei, the Tsar of Life and he is Marya’s fate.

Every part of this book was so clever and imaginative I felt like I was stopping to gawp at the pages every five minutes. Valente writes the kind of story where I can hunt for the hidden meaning buried inside each passage or let the true significance fly over my head and just admire how beautiful it is.

After that, Marya Morevna understood that she belonged to her secret and it belonged to her. They had struck a bloody bargain between them. Keep me and obey me, the secret said to her, for I am your husband and I can destroy you.

This is what magical stories should always be. Showing the real world for what it is. Where the mythological world reflects the real world, where house elves have embraced Stalinism and the Tsar of life is at war with the Tsar of death. Where everyone pretends not to know what happened yesterday and the dead still have to go to work the next morning. Where Baba Yaga rides her pestle and mortar and turns girls into soup. The rich world of Russian folklore has been weaved into the twentieth century so effortlessly it sent shivers through me even though these are not the stories I grew up with.

After reading this gorgeous book and glancing at Valente’s website, where I see she has written a number of fantasy books and won dozens of prestigious awards, I can’t believe it has taken me this long to read one of her works.  I recommend Deathless not only to fantasy fans but also to those who love history and writers with a mastery over storytelling and the English language.

 

 

The Siege by Helen Dunmore

51OSgUguZ2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There’s a stereotype I used to believe about literary fiction, that the genre was full of beautiful imagery and dislikeable characters. I’ve since realised that this is rubbish, Marcel Aymé proved you could make someone love a character in a story as short as 30 pages. However The Siege by Helen Dunmore perfectly illustrates what I used to think literature was.

I picked up this book because the Siege of Leningrad interests me and I kept hearing good things about it and the sequel. I probably would have been more impressed if I had not already read The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons. After that epic, The Siege fell a little flat despite being the more literary of the two.

The story centres on the Levin family in the days leading to and during the siege of 1941 with the focus being on the daughter of the family, Anna, as she strives to keep her family going. Her five year old brother Kolya, her vague intellectual father, Mikhail and his old friend the actress Marina Petrovna make up the household in Leningrad as they huddle in one flat with a dwindling supply of food.  Lastly there is the love interest Andrei, a medical student from Siberia.

The story starts from perspective of Anna but unfolds to involve all the characters. The emerging diary entries of her father caused a beautiful affect of two worlds pressed close together but never touching. We know what Anna feels and we know what her father feels but their outlook on each other is distant and blindly groping. The atmosphere of a city driven mad by cold and hunger is successfully illustrated by Dunmore and one of the greatest achievements of the book for me.

I thought Anna was too perfect and passive at first but as the harder selfish layers of her character showed through when Leningrad was plunged into famine l actually began to respect her more. None of the characters made a very strong impression on me. The love story between Anna and Andrei was so inconsequential to me that sometimes I forgot he was in the flat at all. Although the romance failed to touch me Dunmore writes some beautiful passages that of Anna’s budding feelings

I want to shut my eyes with him. I want to see black velvet in front of us, and prickly stars. I don’t want to make tea for him or take care of him. I want to dance in the dark with him. Can he tell I want that?

There were some lovely macabre elements to Dunmore’s writing like her grisly folktale about General Hunger and General Winter, a story that takes on more and more importance as the story progresses and overshadow everything else in the story even the thread of human interest. I did enjoy the book as I was reading it, Dunmore is a powerful writer, but I don’t believe I’ll ever read it again. I didn’t love the characters enough for that.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

masterThe Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 1966, Penguin 2007, tr: R. Pevear and L. Volonkhsky,

There isn’t another book quite like this one.

One afternoon the Devil enters Moscow and starts a chain of events that leaves chaos and insanity in his wake. In another time Pontinus Pilate chooses between bravery and safety in ancient Judea and finally the courageous Margarita makes a satanic deal to save the man she loves.

This books is a dark blend of absurdity, satire, romance and philosophy and made all the more powerful when considering that Bulgakov risked his life to write the manuscript. Under the Stalinist regime the fear was so great that he burnt the manuscript and then later wrote the whole thing again by heart. The idea that the greatest sin is cowardice is portrayed heavily throughout the book.

Biblical Judea and Stalinist Moscow are the two settings in the story and both are have the suffocating and claustrophobic atmosphere of an extremely oppressive state. The secret police lurk behind the pages of Bulgakov’s novel; always chillingly alluded to but never named outright.

The satanic group and the antics they get up to are dark and comical; beginning with a beheading and on to an empty suit running an office, people bursting into song and unable to stop, the events at the theatre, a cat attempting to buy a tram ticket. Actually most scenes with the cat Behemoth:

But worse things were about to be found in the bedroom: on the jeweller’s wife’s ottoman, in a casual pose, sprawled a third party- namely, a black cat of uncanny size, with a glass of vodka in one paw and a fork, on which he had managed to spear a pickled mushroom, in the other.

And then the unsettling darkness under the mischief makers light hearted guises. The ominous disappearances that could happen to anyone in Stalin’s Russia and the fate that befell Ivan the homeless and Pontius Pilate among others.

Music has such an important role in this story that it almost begs to be adapted to screen. In some cases Bulgakov sets the atmosphere by the music; Ivan’s desperate chase after the strange man he meets on a park bench is to the opera Evgeny Onegin, the opera Aida is quoted often, the Queen of Spades is hauntingly sang in a dream and folk songs are played at Satan’s ball. Faust of course plays a major part in the entire novel.

I recommend this edition by Penguin as it has annotations throughout the book.

I’m sorry I haven’t updated in months. I went through a block of being too intimidated to write reviews in case I didn’t do the book justice. Like this one.