Imagined history or alternative history is not my usual choice, but I thought if the author could make me believe in Tsar Alexei, I could get over my bias. I found Alexei as a 16-year-old to be fun-loving and impulsive; as a man, devoted to duty and his family but rather too prone to tears and saying “I’m sorry.”
The writing is good, with only a few grammatical error or typos and the author did her research. I checked some things that I thought might be incorrect but in each case she was right.
However, my credulity was stretched by some of the sub-plots. Examples: Lenin had an audience and brought a gun along to shoot the Tsar, but instead was shot by Alexei; the Tsar sent his son and heir to kill Hitler; an uncle, or cousin, threw a glass ashtray at the haemophiliac Tsar, did not even apologise and wasn’t punished. Incidents like this make the story unbelievable. Even if it’s alternative history, the author needs to make it believable.
Any story about Russia is bound to be confusing because of the names. So many people had the same name. Many of them also had nicknames. The confusion in this book is compounded by a) the number of characters with the same name b) the use of proper names and nicknames c) having characters of the same name in the same scene. Many times characters were introduced into a scene where they had no part to play. The list of characters at the beginning of the book instead of the end and their relationship to the Tsar would have been helpful. All of this made the story difficult to read.
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.