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Sunday, January 11, 2009

SASHENKA

By Simon Montefiore

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Simon & Schuster. 522 pp. $27

Sashenka, Simon Montefiore's first novel, is a historical whodunit with the epic sweep of a Hollywood movie. The author of the bestselling biography Young Stalin, Montefiore is a natural storyteller who brings his encyclopedic knowledge of Russian history to life in language that glitters like the ice of St. Petersburg.

The first section of the novel takes place in 1916, as the Russian revolution approaches. In a harrowing opening, police arrest 16-year old Sashenka Zeitlin at her private school and whisk her off to prison where she is accused of being a Bolshevik: code name "Comrade Snowfox." Her wealthy father secures her release, but the accusations are true. Her uncle, a party linchpin, has been training her in Marxism and sending her on secret missions. Sashenka wants to distance herself from her dissolute parents and craves the purity of revolution, the purging of decadence. "There is no one as sanctimonious as a teenage idealist," reflects her interrogator.

Montefiore writes nuanced female characters, and Sashenka evolves into a complex heroine. In the second part of the book, set in Moscow in 1939, she is a restless wife in an arranged party marriage, devoted to her two children even as she engages in a passionate affair with a Jewish writer. The novel picks up after Stalin's reign of terror, when no one was safe from the draconian system of fabricated crimes and forced confessions. Sashenka's husband is one of Stalin's key officers, and she is still, to some extent, a believer, although she knows that Stalin has the power to shatter her family on a whim. When the dictator pays an unannounced visit to their dacha, Sashenka watches in horror as her little girl teases him, aware that loyal party members have been turned into "former persons" for less.

In the final third of the book, set in 1994, a young historian is charged with figuring out what happened to Sashenka and her family. Montefiore shows that the historian seeking the truth must call upon creativity as much as upon meticulous research. It must not have been a stretch for this biographer to turn novelist. Here's hoping we get more spellbinding historical fiction from him.

-- Malena Watrous is a novelist and book critic in San Francisco.


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