Signs of the impending collapse of the Soviet Union are everywhere, but fear of the regime is equally widespread. Piano playing prodigy Yevgeni faces violence daily as he travels the city. His aunt and mother struggle to make ends meet while staying under the radar. Everyone knows something has gone terribly wrong, from farm boy Artyom who notices that the cows’ ears are bleeding to Grigory, a doctor who sees how peoples’ lives are valued less than keeping up appearances. All of these characters will struggle to not only survive, but to make a difference.
I like to think that as I’ve been writing reviews, I’ve gotten better at describing the writing techniques which I like and dislike. Nevertheless, I still sometimes stumble across a gem like this, where the writing is simply perfect for reasons which surpass my understanding. Part of it is that the author uses somber adjectives and short, sharp descriptions, like a flash lighting up bits of the scene he’s describing. Part of it is that he’s clearly done his research. Reading about every character, from the farm boy to the doctor, I felt immersed in the captivating details of their daily life. Part of it is the minimalism of his writing and part of it is the insightfulness of his comments on human nature. And part of it was his ability to surprise me with new metaphors and descriptions that never would occur to me, but which were always apropos. But for all of those things I can define, I still feel like there’s something intangible which made the writing so perfect.
Something I disliked about the book, but which I don’t think will be a negative for everyone, is how dark and depressing it was. There’s some violence, including violence towards animals and children, which added to the plot. There was also some violence I didn’t think was necessary. Perhaps it was historically accurate, but even so, I would have been happier without it. I also wasn’t entirely happy with the ending because when I finished I felt uncertain what the point of the story was. We didn’t get to observe much character growth. None of the characters are able to significantly alter the state of the country. There’s some build up to large confrontation which never occurs. However, I think enjoyment and education I found while reading are point enough, so I would still recommend this very highly.This review first published on Doing Dewey.