At the opening of the book, Irina is ninety years old, but she still has a wry sense of humour and all her faculties. The story begins before she was born into a family of a privileged bourgeoisie. It begins toward the end of Imperial Russia and continues through the revolution, wars, the repressions of the Stalin-era, to Moscow of 1990 and the rise of capitalist-leaning gangs.
We first meet her father, the unimaginative and prosaic Nikolai and his more adventurous cousin, Alexander, their wives and others who populate their world. Her handsome father cannot abide Irina because she is a hunchback, while her beautiful mother sees past her deformity and loves her but suffers the guilt of bringing such a creature into the world. This is not so much a matter of strife between the couple but of disappointment with each other, that is never spoken of. Irina stalks through the house, listening at doors and hiding in bushes. From the family’s ‘dinner table talk’ we learn that the seeds of revolution, already sown at the time of the emancipation of the serfs, are germinating.
From her own memories as well as journals and letters she has collected Irina informs us of the politics of the time and the progression of the wars, providing a valuable and relevant background to the stories of the various family members as relationships are destroyed along with the world they once knew. (The murder of the Imperial family is not mentioned.) The author’s knowledge of how war was conducted in those days can only have been the result of extensive research. Either that, or he is over a hundred years old and was there.
There is a cast of colourful characters. Even the weak and unlikeable ones such as Nikolai and the ones who turn into bitches such as Xenia and Adalia manage to evoke our compassion. It was fascinating to watch them change as they learned to cope with their changed circumstances.
This novel is a family saga, a riches to rags story and a tale of unrequited love. It’s also very tragic. For me, it is the best kind of historical novel – a great story that furthered my knowledge of the era. I cannot praise it enough.