Book Review: The Unreliable People, by Rosetta Allan

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_unreliable_peopleIn 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
ISBN 9780143773566

Book Review: Purgatory, by Rosetta Allan

This book is available in bookstores nationwide.

According to Catholic doctrine, when you are in cv_purgatorypurgatory, you are destined for heaven. But you require the purification of your spirit, so as to achieve the requisite holiness before paradise is reached. Unfortunately for John Finnigan, the 10 year-old murdered youth of this book, purgatory is also a place of suffering or torment. He can’t touch anything, and he finds himself alone once the bodies of his mother and two brothers, who initially share purgatory with him, are discovered.

Perhaps purgatory is being left alone, abandoned by those closest to your heart. Or maybe it’s eternal boredom, the ultimate lesson in find-something-to-do that mothers have mouthed from time immemorial. ‘It’s so boring out here, we’re all getting ratty … nothing to do but fight,’ declares John on the second page. His journey, whilst in this state, from utter boredom to appreciation of the smallest things − owls, cats, pohutakawa trees − is an interesting one.

Rosetta Allan uses first person, present tense ‘ghost narration’ to place us dead in the centre (pardon the pun) of John’s world. ‘No one knows we’re dead, except him,’ states John in the first 50 words of the novel, ‘We’re the dead Finnigans’. So of course, the next question is, who killed John and his family in 1865?

And so John’s story is alternated with James’. James Stack, whose life seems tough from the start. But not as tough as John’s − John is dead, after all, and James has the gift of life. James’ story is told in third person, past tense. This creates distance and gifts a traditional voice to the events of his life. Nothing really seems to go well for James, who follows his sister across the world, with her woollen, lace collar in his pocket. As the collar disintegrates, so do aspects of James’ life. But all the while we are reminded: he is alive, at least. It speaks to Allan’s skill that important moments, such as how John and James’ lives intersect, are subtlely rendered and not easily guessed. Well, I was pleased by this, anyway.

My over-arching fascination with this book came from the knowledge that these events actually occurred. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries was the most recent book to remind me of the richness of our history and how untouched it has remained, in literature, until recently. Or, maybe it is only just starting to be explored in fiction well.

Living in Dunedin means hours can be spent perusing the settler exhibitions at Toitu (Otago Early Settlers’ Museum), Allan’s book is another reminder of the lives of characters in old photos that otherwise could remain historic artifacts of a time long-gone. Allan has explored her family history in a fictional way that reminds those of us from ‘other’ places (be it two or five generations back) that we were once settlers, that life was hard, and the world was a very different place.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

by Rosetta Allan
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143571025