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In 1974 in Kazakhstan, then part of the USSR, a little girl is abducted from her bed. Several days later, the girl arrives back, the abductor having suddenly changed her mind. In 1994, in St Petersburg, Antonina navigates her art studies, a new city in newly broken-up Russia, and a search for her identity.
Antonina was the girl who was abducted by the mysterious Katerina. She is of the Koryo-saram people; a group of Koreans who had immigrated to Russia in the 19th century, settling in the far east of Siberia. They have a long and complicated history that can’t be done justice in a book review; The Unreliable People does deal in some depth with the forced deportation of the entire Koryo-saram population from Siberia to Central Asia in the 1930s. Antonina knows a little about her past and the history of her people, and much of the narrative of the story is her slow uncovering of her own stories. Antonina’s character is the most developed in the story; her mother, two best friends and Katerina are all more sketch-like.
Allan’s descriptions of scenes and landscapes are evocative, and you can see the shabby streets of St Petersburg and the windswept Kazakh steppes easily in your mind’s eye. The narrative moves between time periods and locations, and towards the end also shifts in focus between main characters, which was a little jarring. The most compelling part of the story for me was Katerina’s experiences during the deportation from Siberia to Kazakhstan, which were horrific and tragic in equal measure – a piece of history I hadn’t been aware of, and certainly nothing that enhances Stalin’s reputation. Other aspects of recent history are touched on such as the breakup of the USSR and nuclear testing.
I enjoyed The Unreliable People, although it took me a while to get the hang of 1994 St Petersburg and its art world. With themes of love, loss, identity and redemption, it has a lot going on, and will appeal to readers who like their books to have a bit of depth.
by Rachel Moore
The Unreliable People
by Rosetta Allan
Published by Penguin Books NZ