Book Review: The Romanovs, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_romanovsThis is a massive book. Since I am not a historian, I found it somewhat daunting – partly because of the size, but also because of the fact that I can’t retain dates, and the cast of characters in the Romanov dynasty is ridiculously large – but I persevered and got through to the end. While I did finish the book, I would like to say up-front that this is a reaction to the book, rather than a review, due to my lack of background knowledge of the topic.

Simon Sebag Montefiore has set the book out in segments which relate to each of the emperors of the Romanov family. Each section begins with a “cast list” of characters, their relationship to the tsar of the time, and their nicknames. This is a very helpful technique, and I found myself referring to it frequently.

I heard a quote recently about the Romanov empire – “an empire so vast that as the sun was rising on one side, it was setting on the other”. The Romanovs to me exemplify the saying that if power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I found almost everything about them to be reprehensible – they were violent, power-hungry, devious, war-mongering, licentious, profligate, conniving, autocratic, despotic, religiously fanatical, and treacherous. If the book had been written as fiction, you’d find it hard to imagine how anyone could create all of this in one family.

The reader in me got a little bit caught up in the wild ride through four centuries; but at the same time I was sickened by the violence, the lies, the anti-semitism and the weird dependence on Rasputin by Nicky and Alexei and their family. If you want to know how not to run a country, let alone an empire, you may enjoy this book. I didn’t like it personally, but only because the characters I was reading about were so unpleasant!

It’s prodigiously well-researched, written in an entertaining way, and Montefiore had access to material not available to prevous chroniclers of this family.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Romanovs: 1618 to 1918
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Published by Weidenfield & Nicholson
ISBN 9780297852667

Book review: The Phoenix Song by John Sinclair

This book is in bookstores now. It is also the Listener Book Club book for December.

John Sinclair, with his first novel The Phoenix Song, has created something of a challenge for readers. The story is densely packed with the history of relations between Russia and China and at times this can be overwhelming. He also introduces just enough authentically named Chinese and Russian characters to make it difficult, but not impossible, to remember who they are. We are helped by his decision to include a contents page and chapter headings to signpost some of the shifts in time and place. I had the feeling that he could have made it even more complex, and that the novel he has given us is a judgement call. It already takes a dedicated reader to commit the concentration required; if he had gone any further he might have lost us all.

The commitment and concentration required to get to grips with The Phoenix Song, however, most certainly has its rewards.

Told through a first person narration by Xiao Magou, starting in 1950, a year after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China when she was eight years old, the story reveals remarkable aspects of life in the young nation. With a father who is a party official, the young Xiao’s musical talent is quickly recognised and cultivated, but ever present throughout her story is the all embracing power of the party and the extreme control it exercised over the population. Entangled in Xiao’s story is the complexity of Chinese-Russian relations, with secretive negotiations about treaties and personal relationships; the Russians feature heavily in Xiao’s early life, and her parents’, as well as at the Shanghai Conservatory where she studies violin.

The book is dense with history but it has its lighter moments, usually when the Russians are involved. Sinclair has great technical control of the words on the page, and effortlessly moves into dialogue and flashback when relating events that Xiao witnesses, as well as stories she hears from her mother, or imagines when looking at photographs. Some of the exchanges between the Russians at the Conservatory are, while not exactly laugh out loud, highly amusing.

There’s a darker side to the humour as well. Some of the decisions by the Party in relation to musical development in China would be, if they weren’t true, laughable. The demands on citizens to be productive, to labour, in culture as well as the fields and factories, seem absurd to our understanding of what creativity is. The very idea of quotas for symphonies and songs, as if they were tonnes of pig iron, is remarkable. The arbitrary decisions on which western composers are suddenly in favour, and those that are to be discarded, are equally astounding. When students at the Conservatory have to suspend their studies for days just to attack Debussy and his work, to burn his scores, we’d like to think it is purely fiction, but we know it isn’t; Sinclair has done his homework.

The story has an arc which is relatively predictable. Sinclair is a New Zealand writer, and the book is published by Victoria University Press. The promotional paragraph on the cover says it moves between China, Europe and New Zealand. It doesn’t take much thinking to work out what is going to happen, especially when Sinclair drops in the occasional paragraph to make sure we know Xiao is telling the story from a point a long way into the future. Nevertheless, the way he weaves together the events is skilful and accomplished, and creating a consistent and convincing voice on the page for a young Chinese girl in the 1950s is quite an achievement.

While I think what Sinclair has produced is certainly an interesting and technically accomplished novel, it didn’t engage me quite as much as I’d hoped. Using the first person to relate a mostly chronological story means sometimes the narrative drags. Xiao consistently relates details of what she sees in a colourful way, which certainly paints a detailed picture of her surroundings for the reader, but tends to slow things down. There are moments of excitement and tragedy, but Xiao is emotionally cold. There’s a reason for this, but I had hoped to see more of her feelings.

The Phoenix Song is a book about a world so different to ours it demands to be read.

Music and freedom (or its absence) are its themes, and it reveals frightening truths about the role these played in determining the future of twentieth century society. Xiao’s young life touches decisions and people – Mao Zedong, Deng Xiao Ping, Khrushchev – at the highest level of geopolitics. It might not be as emotionally engaging as I had hoped, but it is certainly a book worth reading. Whether John Sinclair is contemplating writing a second volume of Xiao’s story I don’t know – it will be obvious what this should cover once you’ve read The Phoenix Song – but I would certainly be near the front of the queue if he does.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Phoenix Song 
by John Sinclair
Published by Victoria University Press, October 2012
ISBN 9780864738257

Read more about The Listener Book Club.

Winner of a copy of The Phoenix Song thanks to Victoria University Press. We asked people to comment below if they’d like to win a copy of this book – the lucky winner (chosen by random number generator) is Kerry Aluf.

Book review: Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

This book is in bookstores now.

I just Googled images of Fabergé eggs, perhaps the most ostentatious symbol of the last thirty years of the Romanov dynasty of Russia. Exquisitely crafted, encrusted with precious stones, and all with a hidden surprise, these beautiful pieces have outlived and outshone a most awful time in Russian history.

In this novel, there is a Fabergé egg which has a miniature version of the royal residence Tsarskoe Selo, some 24 kms south of St Petersburg. First constructed in the early 18th century by Peter the Great, it was also the last home of the Romanov family before they were sent to Siberia for their final days. For Marsha, the narrator of this story, the beautiful egg, which she first sees as a young child, is her introduction to the Romanov family and comes to symbolise the tiny, unrealistic and controlled world they live in.

Marsha is 18 years old. She is also the daughter of Grigori Rasputin, that peculiar man who had such a hold over the Tsarina Alexandra, and apparently not just for his medical skills in his treatment of her hemophiliac son, Alexi or Alyosha as he is in this book. Who knows. There have been pages and pages written about this time in Russian history, films made, songs sung. This book is not about Rasputin, but it does open with the discovery of his murdered body in the Neva River.

With Rasputin now gone, the Tsarina looks to Marsha, an intelligent, quietly observant girl with perhaps some of the mystique of her father which is so appealing to the Tsarina, to take over the care of her 13 year old son. Somewhat shocked and alarmed by this request, Marsha doesn’t feel she can refuse. So she moves into the palace a bare two months before the Bolsheviks took over. From thereon in, she too is a prisoner in the palace.

She becomes a close friend of the young Alyosha, telling stories of her family, in particular her father, and recreates the lives of both their parents into some sort of fairytale wonderland/dream sequence which of course comes crashing down. Throughout the stories, which quickly blend with the reality of their imprisonment, there is a strong thread of erotica and awakening sexuality between these two. It is all very tastefully and beautifully done. At all times Alyosha knows he and his family will not survive – he is a well educated young lad with a fascination for the French Revolution and is constantly comparing his family’s fate to that of the Louis XVI and his entourage.

Marhsa, naturally, survives the carnage and here the book takes a slightly different turn. The magical realism quickly fades away as the reality of life outside the luxury of the palace hits home. After a marriage of convenience that takes her to Paris, she rather weirdly ends up becoming an animal handler in the circus – first as a horse riding acrobat, and latterly as a handler of lions, tigers and bears until the day she is almost killed by a bear. And even more weirdly, this is actually true – Marsha was a real person, daughter of Rasputin and animal whisperer extraordinaire – her father’s daughter perhaps.

Aside from the historical aspects and the strong narrative, there are faults with this book. Firstly it took an absolute age to get underway. For the first 60 odd pages barely anything happens, things just trudge along, not helped by the heavy, overly long and complicated sentences. Once the actual narrative gets underway things improve, but it is quite a way into the book before the author seems to find her stride and she is away. Secondly I did find the transition from being companion to Alyosha to being her own woman a bit awkward. After all is this a book about the last days of the Romanov dynasty or is it a book about Rasputin’s daughter?

I think I would have preferred it to be about Marsha herself. She sounds to have all the characteristics of a true survivor and I would have liked to have had more than the last quarter of the book solely about her.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Enchantments
by Kathryn Harrison
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN 9780007456062