Archangel by Robert Harris

After reading Conclave recently and reminding myself of how much I love Robert Harris, I was pleased to find a copy of Archangel at the library. Although this was not one that sounded particularly appealing to me and I suspected it wasn’t going to be a favourite, I still wanted to read it – the other Harris novels I’ve read have been his newer ones and I was curious to see what his earlier books were like (Archangel was published in 1998).

The story is set in Russia in the 1990s, during the Boris Yeltsin years just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. British historian Christopher Kelso – better known as ‘Fluke’, for reasons which are explained within the novel – is attending a conference in Moscow at which the recent opening of the Soviet archives will be discussed. During the conference, Fluke is approached by Papu Rapava, an elderly man who claims that he was present at the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and that he witnessed the theft of a black notebook which belonged to Stalin and was believed to be his secret diary.

This diary, if it really exists, could be the academic breakthrough Fluke needs to revive his career, but it will also be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. Choosing to believe that Rapava is telling the truth, Fluke begins a search for the notebook – but what he finds is not quite what he had expected. Following a trail of clues leading north to the remote city of Archangel, he makes a discovery that could affect not only his own future but Russia’s future as well.

The first thing to say is that this book, being more of a conventional thriller, is quite different from the other five Robert Harris books I’ve read. It’s also my least favourite so far, but I’d had a feeling that would be the case, so at least my expectations weren’t too high! I did find things to enjoy and at times I was completely gripped, but there were too many other aspects of the book that were a problem for me.

First of all, the characters: because of the nature of the story, most of the characters are very unlikeable – a mixture of ambitious politicians, unscrupulous journalists and people with dangerous ideas. As for Fluke Kelso, our hero, I found him bland and uninteresting, especially when compared with the protagonists of other Harris novels; he certainly lacked the depth and complexity of Cardinal Lomeli in my most recent Harris read, Conclave. The character who was potentially most engaging, Rapava’s daughter Zinaida, had an important role but we didn’t see as much of her as I would have liked.

In terms of plot, the novel gets off to a promising start, with Fluke learning about the night of Stalin’s death and then following clues which he hopes will lead him to the mysterious black notebook. However, the big revelation, when it comes, is something so far-fetched I just couldn’t believe in it, and the scenes which follow feel over the top and implausible too, which was a shame after so much care had been put into building the tension and creating a sense of mystery.

The descriptions of 1990s Moscow and snowbound Archangel are very well done and, as I’ve said, the book is quite a pageturner at times, so I still think it’s worth reading – particularly if you are more interested in Soviet history than I am. Apparently there was a BBC adaptation in 2005 starring Daniel Craig. Has anyone seen it?

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One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore

One Night in Winter It’s Moscow, June 1945 and a Victory Parade is taking place to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany. A group of teenagers, all members of a secret literary society called the Fatal Romantics’ Club, meet on a bridge during the parade to re-enact a duel scene from the poet Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. It’s supposed to be a game, but something goes tragically wrong and two of them are shot dead.

The secret police begin to investigate at the orders of Stalin himself, but it’s not clear whether the deaths were the result of an accident, a suicide pact or a murder. Because the teenagers involved in the incident are the children of some of the Soviet Union’s highest-ranking officials, they find themselves suspected of conspiring to overthrow the government. When the children are arrested and questioned they discover that the answers they give could incriminate their families and that innocent people could suffer.

More and more people are gradually drawn into the investigation and taken to Moscow’s Lubianka Prison where they are interrogated. As well as the members of the Fatal Romantics’ Club themselves (including eighteen-year-olds Serafima Romashkina, the daughter of a famous actress, and Andrei Kurbsky, son of an ‘Enemy of the People’), questions are also asked of their school teachers, parents and even two younger children aged just ten and six.

One Night in Winter is based on a real incident that occurred in 1943 and as you would expect, some parts of the book are quite harrowing, especially the descriptions of frightened children being made to testify against their own families, knowing that if they say the wrong thing they could be condemning a parent to death. Some of the parents, such as Hercules Satinov, have to continue working with and obeying Stalin even while knowing that he is responsible for the imprisonment of their children.

But this is also a book about love – in many different forms, whether it’s the romantic love between a man and a woman or the special bond between a parent and a child. Almost everyone in the novel seems to be in love with someone else and some of them are involved in secret romances. Over the course of the novel we see how far our characters are prepared to go to protect the ones they love. The secret police believe that a mysterious lover of Serafima’s could hold the key to the whole mystery. And the idea behind the Fatal Romantics’ Club is that “if we cannot live with love, we choose death”.

Simon Sebag Montefiore is a historian and the author of several historical non-fiction books which include a biography of Stalin. It’s obvious that he has an excellent knowledge of the period and its historical figures (Stalin himself has an important role to play in the novel) and his portrayal of life in Stalinist Moscow feels thoroughly researched and authentic. The settings include School 801, the exclusive school attended by all of the children in the story, the interior of Lubianka Prison, the dirty communal apartment where Andrei and his mother live and the luxurious homes of the Bolshevik leaders.

The only thing that was lacking in this novel was emotional impact and I do think this could have been improved if the author had chosen to focus on the viewpoint of just one or two characters, rather than switching between so many different characters. There are such a lot of people to keep track of that I found the character list at the front of the book absolutely essential and while I can understand the reasons for telling the story from different perspectives, it meant I struggled to form any strong emotional connections.

Simon Sebag Montefiore is a new author for me, but I am now interested in reading his other Russian novel, Sashenka.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review