Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Sashenka - Simon Montefiore (Kindle)


Sashenka was my chosen read for the long flight to Poland – one of my books from my TBR Reading Challenge that was well-reviewed last year in EW. This was to be the beginning of my anticipated rampage to knock out the remainder of my reading challenges over my summer travels. Despite a twenty-hour commute, plus at least 15 butt-numbing hours in the car, it took me nearly a week to finish this one, which would not be classified as a rampage. Fun, easy reading this was not.

The story centers on Sashenka Zeitlen, the daughter of a successful but stoic Jewish businessman and a flighty, aging party girl. We first meet Sashenka in St. Petersburg in 1916, at the precipice of the Bolshevik Revolution. At sixteen, our protagonist has recently been set afire with Marxist ideals instilled by her uncle, who finds in Sashenka a serious and intelligent child ignored by her parents and ripe for the picking. She actively participates in underground movement, earns the code name “Comrade Snowfox”, and almost basks in the experience of a short but harrowing imprisonment. Although she is naive, she is a likable girl, full of vim and vigor:

“She reveled in the delicious, almost amorous feeling of being part of a secret, a giant conspiracy. There was something seductive about sacrificing the old morality of the middle classes for the new morality of the Revolution.”

We jump forward to the second part of the novel, in Moscow, 1939. Sashenka has an arranged party marriage to one of her fellow Bolshevik comrades, Vanya, and has two small children. They are whole-heartedly dedicated to Stalinist Russia – in fact, they are on a first-name basis with the leader and are at the top of their game. But when Sashenka has a brief but passionate affair with a writer, things go terribly wrong. Sashenka and Vanya both find themselves an enemy of the state, are imprisoned, and rely on old acquaintances to assist in hiding their children and finding safe homes for them. Sashenka realizes, just a bit too late, that “her” Russia is really no better than the old one. “…she had helped create this man-eating USSR.”

The third portion of the story takes place in Moscow in 1994. A wealthy, elderly woman, who was adopted as a young child, decides she must locate her true parents (which of course we know are Sashenka and Vanya). She hires a young historian to dig through archives to understand what exactly happened back in 1939, solving the mysteries long-since buried that the old-school Communists would rather keep hidden.

Montefiore has written other works of historical fiction based in Russia, which is probably driven by his own Russian ancestry. His knowledge of the era and its politics shows in the detail of his writing. The personalities and follies of Rasputin, Lenin and Stalin are larger than life; the warped methodology of Stalinist interrogation is chilling. In an interview that I saw on Amazon, Montefiore reveals his muse for this book…a mysterious picture of a beautiful young Russian Bolshevik girl that captures her look of determination mixed with trepidation. The premise draws you in quickly.

I’m not sure I can truly verbalize how I feel about this book because my feelings are mixed. Despite Montefiore’s unembellished prose, it really was everything you would want in a historical novel about WWI and WWII. It is easy to fall in love with our complex heroine, her belief in her mission, her courage, and dedication to her children and those she loves. The historical events come alive at the street level. The mystery of the fate of Sashenka and Vanya is compelling. But I found it very difficult to slog my way through the terrible scenes of children torn from their parents in the middle of the night, dragged across country, separated from each other and raised by strangers. The psychological and physical abuses in the prisons were violent and maddening. You do not want to read this after eating! I also found the ending to be somewhat uplifting but predictable, which I guess, in hindsight, is what I needed to prevent me from finishing the book and slipping into a depression. Bottom line…I can’t seem to get the book out of my mind, but I’m not sure it would be universally embraced.

3.5 out of 5 stars

8 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

I'm sure I have a copy of something by him in my house somewhere...I think it might be time to get rid of it though. This doesn't sound like my sort of thing at all!

Beth F said...

This doesn't sound like something for me either! So much for the rampage!

Literary Feline said...

I'll be the first descenting voice of commenters who says this sounds very much like something I would want to read. Of course, anything related to WWII gets my attention. And this sounds like it's written from a perspective that I am not overly familiar with.

Thank you for the great review, Sandy!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Jackie - no, I already knew this one would not have interested you! I am always intrigued with WWI and WWII, and strong female characters. I just had a hard time with some of the darker stuff which is not usually my issue...

Beth - well, you can't read them all! There are so many great books out there that do interest us, there is no reason to spend time with something that won't!

Wendy - If the wars are your thing, and you like a strong female, you would like this. I am the same way...I can't say no to anything related to WWII!!

Melody said...

I'm not sure if this book is for me, but I think your review is fantastic!

Iliana said...

Hmm, I don't think this is one that would be at the top of my reading list either. I think I would have to be in the right frame of mind and perhaps if it was a book group read I might go for it knowing I'd be able to discuss it afterwards you know.

Anna said...

This sounds right up my alley. You think this would count for the WWII challenge??

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Anonymous said...

What is this with you people, 'this isn't my type of book' stuff? Do you want fairy tales? I am an avid reader, read this book and was as involved as Sandy when reading it. I love to read about Russia and am lucky enough to have visited there so could picture the places and streets described. Yes, Sandy, you're right, it is a story that haunts you long after you've finished it.

Wendy in Australia