No sweet song, this

book coverLullaby by Leila Slimani

Translated from the French Chanson Douce (2016) by Sam Taylor (Faber & Faber, 2018)

I encountered Leila Slimani and her work in the New York Times Review of Books, months before the English translation came to market. My fingers raced across the keyboard to Amazon, only to find I had to wait four months before copies would become available, and for the first time ever (okay, outside of pre-ordering the Harry Potter books for my daughter) I placed an order and held my breath.

The opening sentence, which plays on the book jacket above the title, and repeated in multiple reviews in multiple papers around the world, is a bare, unadorned statement.

The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.

So you have the grisly end to the story, which is the beginning of an exploration of the multiple complexities that structure our lives and the dynamics that ensue when people from different worlds come together. A young couple, intelligent, ambitious, and aware in the manner of the urbane liberal middle class, wish to hire a nanny to care for their two children when the mother, a brilliant lawyer, goes back to work after a baby break. “No illegal immigrants, agreed?….to look after the little ones, it’s too dangerous.” Says Myriam to her husband, Paul, as they stage their small apartment to convey an assurance they barely feel, to receive the applicants for the post. “She is awaiting this nanny as if she is the Savior.”

Louise is perfect (the title of the North American edition is The Perfect Nanny), with a face “like a peaceful sea, its depths suspected by no one.” She brings the much-needed order to their household, coaxing the children into good behaviour and rustling up delectable home-cooked meals that win the work-worn hearts of the parents who return from their demanding jobs, tired and grateful. Most importantly, she gives them back their time with each other, allowing them to rediscover an intimacy they had lost to parenthood.

But Louise’s own life is cold and empty, one of rejection, deprivation, and a million broken dreams and as she fills it, more and more, with the lives of Miriyam’s children, Mila and Adam,  “The silent apartment is completely under her power, like an enemy begging for forgiveness.”

Lullaby is a thriller told in reverse, a deliberate forensic examination of how something comes to be. The deliberate distance maintained by the narration, as if you are watching it all unfold through a six-inch thick pane of glass, in slow motion, makes it all the more powerful. Slimani takes us deep into the emotional labyrinth of motherhood, where it is not all sacrifice and smiles, but also resentment, rage, regret, confusion. She carefully dissects the hypocrisies of class difference, complicated as it is these days with carefully hidden attitudes to race, ethnicity and gender. She explores what it means to nurture children that are not your own, who unhesitatingly betray your love by running into a parent’s arms the moment you set them down. Miriyam and Paul love Louise, but they are also a little frightened of her, and at times, hate that they are reminded that they have so much, and she, so little. After all, they live in a fashionable part of Paris, a neighbourhood where people “offer friendly greetings even if they don’t know each other” while Louise escapes every day from a bare one-room apartment to fulfil Miriyam’s “guiltily nursed” fantasies of an idyllic family life.

We know how it all ends, but the fascination with the question of why keeps one reading. Apart from the central characters—Louise, Miriyam, Paul and the children—there are others, bit players in this drama that shapes people, shapes events.

Slimani’s style is one of short, sometimes even brusque, sentences that allow the scene to unfold, but don’t let you linger. The novel moves forward in tension-filled bursts, told almost entirely in present tense, giving the reader the sense that you can’t tarry or you might be left behind as the narrative moves relentlessly towards its end.

It’s no surprise that the novel won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016. It is nothing like your regular whodunit; after all, we know who did it right from the start.

Are book reviews important?

Book reviewsGiven the content of this blog, it’s pretty clear where I stand on this. But there are writers who question the point of a book review and can be scathing about reviewers.

In this article in The New Statesman, Chris Power defends the point of the review.

“Reviews don’t matter. ‘I never really trust reviews,’ said Karl Ove Knausgaard in a recently published interview. … When considering the criticism of criticism, you needn’t look hard to find equivalents to Michael Gove’s comment, from June 2016, that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts’.

“Of course reviews matter. That’s easy and predictable enough for someone writing a review to say, but it can be proven. Reviews matter in two ways: as filters, and as shapers of opinion. In his 1991 book, U & I, Nicholson Baker describes ‘book reviews, not books’ as ‘the principal engines of change in the history of thought’; because no one has time to read all the books they want to, reviews must sometimes stand in for the thing itself. The more contentious point, about influence, can be divided into two questions: do they influence and if so is that influence beneficial or malign? …

“Despite the modern quantification of criticism – exemplified by the Tomatometer score formulated by the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes – which can give a false impression of objectivity, a review is only ever an opinion. This is why good criticism always refers back to the work under review to support its points.”

Read the full article, What’s the point of book reviews?.

Photo: Thad Zajdowicz

Recognizing the Talent of the Translator: The Subtle Art of Translating

From time to time, this blog showcases books in translation to tempt readers to explore writing from countries that do not always make it to the bestseller lists. But we often overlook the work of the translator, who has not only to be fluent in two languages but has to be able to write. The fact that we read books written in other languages is not simply because they have been rendered into another language (English, in this case) but also because the translation does justice to the original.

Rachel Cooke in this article for The Guardian, says that the quality of the translation is paramount.

“Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart. But which one to get? In the end, I decided to go for something entirely new and ritzy, which is how I came to buy the Penguin Modern Classics edition, translated by Heather Lloyd.

Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it. For a while I pressed on, telling myself it was stupid to cling to only one version, as if it were a sacred thing, and that perhaps I would soon fall in love with this no doubt very clever and more accurate new translation. Pretty soon, though, I gave up. However syntactically correct it might be, the prose had for me lost all of its magic. It was as if I’d gone out to buy a silk party dress and come home with a set of nylon overalls.”

Read the full article on The Guardian website. Cooke’s article is followed by short pieces by translators of some well-known foreign writers.

The Known World: Edward P. Jones

A little-known fact about slavery in the United States is that a few black people owned slaves. In some cases, freed blacks bought their parents, spouses or children, but there were others who owned slaves for economic reasons.[1] This is the story that Edward P. Jones tells us in The Known World.

It begins with the death in 1855 of Henry Townsend, a black slave owner. Henry’s parents, Augustus and Mildred, were owned by a white landowner, William Robbins. Once Augustus had saved enough money, he bought his freedom and later Mildred’s. But Robbins was reluctant to part with Henry and kept raising the price. By the time Augustus had enough money to free Henry, he was a teenager and had absorbed some of Robbins’s ideas.

While Augustus and Mildred make a conscious decision never to own slaves, William doesn’t follow their example. Robbins takes Henry under his wing; he becomes a landowner and buys his first slave, Moses—with whom the book begins and ends—and then buys others who work in his house and on his fields. But when both owners and slaves are black—and often the owners themselves were once slaves—keeping clear boundaries between them can become a little complicated.

This is such a rich book that I am not going to summarize the plot because I would not be able to do it justice. Jones picks up on the nuances of human relations. No one here is wholly good or wholly bad. Each person comes alive and has his or her story told: Alice, a slave said to have lost her mind; Caldonia, William’s widow who now has the responsibility of running the farm; and Fern, a schoolteacher with a gambling husband. Jones narrates their lives and does it skillfully, so the book, instead of being a series of fragments, is instead a rich tapestry of life in the Southern US. The sheer number of characters means that I sometimes had trouble keeping track of them. (There is a list, but it’s at the end, so I didn’t find it until I had finished reading the book.)

From time to time, Jones pulls back for a wide-angle shot, and we see the characters as they are now and as they will be. Elias, a slave on the Townsend property, whittles a doll for his little girl, Tessie, the day Henry dies. She is told by an adult that it is not right to skip when someone has died. “Tessie would soon be six years old and being the child of her parents who she was, she listened and stopped skipping. Tessie would live to be ninety-seven years old, and the doll her father was making for her would be with her until her last hour.” Tessie was both the child and the old woman, much as we all are—the sum of our various selves at different stages in our lives.[2]

Slavery was an insidious institution and tainted all who came in contact with it, whether slave or free, or black, white or Cherokee. There is plenty here about the cruelty, repression and injustice of the period, but there is also love, understanding and attempts—sometimes successful—to break free of the chains. The book picks up the lives of those who survive and manage to go north to forge better lives.

I would recommend this book: it is beautifully written and one of the best  I’ve read this year.

[1] If you want to know more about this, read “Did Black People Own Slaves?” on The Root.

[2] Paul Auster does something similar in Winter Journal.

A Land Without Jasmine: Wajdi Al-Ahdal, translated by William Maynard Hutchins

Over the last year, Yemen has been in the news, its people suffering the ravages of war and famine. I realized that I knew very little about the country, especially what it had been like to live there before the troubles began. I’ve always found fiction to be the best way in to understand a society, especially if the writer is from the country/community. Fiction takes you into people’s homes and minds in a way that non-fiction does not.

So I got myself this book, written by Wajdi Al-Ahdal, one of Yemen’s best-known writers. In 2003, he had to leave Yemen because his book Qawarib Jabaliya (Mountain Boats) upset radical conservatives. He was eventually able to return but I somehow don’t think this book is going to endear him to the conservatives—he writes not only about the way women are treated in this very patriarchal society but also about women’s sexuality. They are seen as both the keepers of the family’s honour and objects of desire.

The centre of this book is Jasmine, a young woman living in Sana’a. She is bright and beautiful, focused on her studies. Until one day she doesn’t come home from university. No one can find her—she seems to have vanished into thin air. And for many of the people around her, a land without Jasmine is a diminished place.

Each chapter is narrated by a different person, starting with Jasmine herself. She complains about the male gaze that follows her everywhere: whether it’s the shopkeeper across the street or the construction workers on her way to the university; men ogle her and seem to follow her every move, in spite of the veil and long black coat she wears when she leaves the house. She feels that she is suffocating under this constant watchfulness, “a noxious type of male violence”.

It is not only older men who are obsessed with Jasmine. Ali, the adolescent boy in the flat opposite hers, is in love with her. They used to be friends until Jasmine’s father thought she was too old to be hanging out with boys. So now, unable to speak to her or approach her, he waits every morning for Jasmine to leave for university and follows her like a shadow.

When one day she doesn’t come home, her father and brothers go looking for her, convinced that she has in some way sullied the family’s honour. It seems like that men in the family and the clan are more worried about their honour than about what happened to Jasmine. The only people who seem to really care are her mother, Ali, the man running the café at the university and the policemen investigating her disappearance.

All of them take turns at telling their side of the story. And each narration adds yet another piece to Jasmine’s story. And because she is the first character you meet, you can separate the truth from people’s perceptions of her. The last chapter goes back to Jasmine herself, through her mother who finds Jasmine’s diary, which hints at events much stranger than anyone had imagined.

This is a slim book at just 82 pages. The end is intriguing, but I am not sure whether I completely believe it. It isn’t the element of magic realism that bothers me but the woman writing the diary feels very different from the woman in the first chapter. Even allowing for the secret lives we all lead inside our heads, I found it a little hard to believe. At some level it feels like a male fantasy, the kind that has been dogging Jasmine all her adult life, even though it is supposed to be her diary.

In spite of that, I found it a fascinating glimpse into a country and a culture that I really didn’t know much about.

Uncommon Type: Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks is one of the best actors working today—he slips into the skin of a character, making him completely believable. I’m a big admirer of his acting, so when this book came out, I was curious: is he as good a writer as he is an actor?

The answer is yes. This collection of short stories includes “slice of life” stories, sci-fi and pages from a fictional small-town newspaper. The diversity gives Hanks the freedom to explore different genres, but my favourites were the ones that were simply about people.

A teenager goes out surfing with his father for the first time after years, and witnesses his infidelity; a man dates a friend with tons of energy and drive who runs him ragged (they break up but stay friends); a divorced woman picks up her young son for a weekend and gives him the time of his life; a group of friends build a rocket to the moon; a Bulgarian immigrant looks for work in New York; a man time-travels to the past and falls in love with a woman there; and a young actor goes on his first junket to promote a film. Interspersed with the stories is a column from a small-town newspaper—set like it would be in a newspaper—called Our Town Today by a man called Hank Fiset, who is so clearly drawn although you don’t know anything about him except what you pick up from his column: a reporter from the old school, a conventional small-time man.

And that’s the thing with these stories: Hanks gets the tone in each exactly right—you know what it’s like to be an immigrant trying to become part of a society that doesn’t really want you, or a young divorced mother wondering whether to date the man next door. In “Christmas Eve, 1953”, Hanks builds the character of Virgil Beuell in tiny reveals that make you constantly revaluate what you know about him. The level of detail is also impressive: in the story about the surfers, “Welcome to Mars”, for example, I would imagine that’s exactly what surfing is like:

“The wave was gorgeous, well shaped and smooth faced. And huge. A monster. Kirk kicked out of the trough and climbed up the face, just in front of the curl of white water, a compressed whisper of wind at his back. … He topped the very crest, bounced along the rim, then dug once more into the slot, retarding his speed to allow the break to catch up with him. He knelt as low as his physique allowed until water was bending over his head and he occupied a little green room of the curl.”

The story that I found the weakest was “Come Stay with Us”, written like a script. After everything that had come before, I didn’t feel I could get my teeth in it—it felt a bit disjointed.

In all these stories, there is a common thread: typewriters (which explains the title). Typewriters either take centre stage or have walk-on cameos, like Hitchcock in his films. (Hank Fiset uses one, of course.) Each chapter starts with a photograph of a typewriter. This book is a tribute to them and brought back memories: the clackity-clack of the keys, pulling back the carriage at the end of a line and the ting that followed. Made me want to go out and buy the oldest one I could find!

The back cover of the book says “With 14 photographs”. Those hoping for pictures of Hanks and his co-stars will be disappointed: the only stars here are some wonderful old typewriters!

Winter Journal: Paul Auster

Memories are not linear; they have a chronology all their own. In Winter Journal, Paul Auster looks back at his life, meandering back and forth in time. He is the 63-year-old man climbing out of bed to look at the snow turning the trees white, the boy, all of 3 and a half years old, going wild in the endless space of a department store and splitting his cheek on a nail on the leg of a carpenter’s bench, and a 12-year-old focused on his game of baseball. Each incident is captured with the clarity of film and a clear memory of what it felt to be that person at that time.

This is a journey through Auster’s life: the places he lived, the women he loved, and the scars he picked up along the way. He writes about the body, the way it grows, develops and starts to wear out. He writes entirely in second person, which can be hard to get right, but it works here.

Marriages in his family seem to be rocky, except for his own. His parents’ marriage was doomed to failure: “an impetuous marriage between two incompatible souls that ran out of steam before the honeymoon was over”. Like that of his grandparents: “Your father would be such a wonderful man—if only he were different”, says his grandmother to her daughter. His father’s parents weren’t much happier: his grandmother shot her husband in their kitchen. Auster’s mother was a free spirit who went her own way, although she was a good mother to him: “you were the beneficiary of her unhappiness, and you were well loved”.

There is a lot about this book I liked: the writing and the stories he tells. However, I found parts of it a little self-indulgent: we don’t really need the details of all the places he’s lived in. It’s a device he uses to trace the path of his life but it could have been shortened considerably without losing anything. And do we really need almost the entire plot of DOA, the 1949 film by Rudolph Maté? If there was a reason for its inclusion, then I completely missed it.

But Auster at his best is a pleasure to read. Here is a vivid description of him as a 6-year-old, stepping on a nest of wasps: “seconds later you were engulfed by those stinging creatures, who were attacking your face and arms, and even as you tried to swat them away, others had crawled inside your clothes and were stabbing you in your legs and chest and back. Horrific pain. You went running out of the bushes into the grass in the backyard, no doubt screaming your head off, and there was your mother, who took one glance at you and immediately began stripping off your clothes, and when there was no longer a stitch on you, she swooped up your naked body in her arms…carried you upstairs, turned on the water, and put you in a cold, cold bath.”

You can feel the relief of the “cold, cold bath” at the end of that paragraph. It is writing like this that makes this book worth reading.


Kumukanda: Kayo Chingonyi

I’ve discovered new poets as part of the reading challenge, and two of them have blown me away. One is Kendall Hippolyte from St. Lucia, and the second is Kayo Chingonyi from Zambia.

In north-western Zambia, tribes have an initiation ritual for young boys called kumukunda. During the ritual, the boys live apart from the community and are taught skills that will help them in life. Chingonyi was born in Zambia but moved to the UK when he was six. This book is Chingonyi’s substitute for kumukunda. It packs so much in just 50 pages: what it means to grow up black in the UK, identity, racism, music, love and death. And it’s powerful stuff.

In “Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee”, Chingonyi writes affectionately of making mixed tapes as a boy, sneaking off with cassettes he hoped his mother wouldn’t miss. (Remember how big mixed tapes were before digital music and playlists came along?). He finds an unmarked TDK cassette and slips it in the player, only to hear his father’s voice asking him how old he was “in the slight twang of a lost tongue”.

Music is the magic that transports him, as it has done so many others, giving him a space that is his own, away from the store detectives that stalk him, away from the “the look of disgust / on the face of a boy too young to understand / why he hates but only that he must”. After a cricket match, a boy in the locker room asks him why “I’d stand here, when I could be there, with my kind”.

The poems follow Chingonyi as he goes to university and RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). Auditioning for roles, he gets tired of playing “lean dark men who may have guns”. He moves to his own place and “learns to walk in a grown man’s shoes”. But his mother falls ill and eventually dies.

On a grey ward, two months in to size elevens,
she speaks in my mother tongue, bids me trace
the steps of music, but the discord of two
languages keeps me from the truth I won’t hear.

She’s dying but I won’t call her dead, can’t let mum
become a body, a stone, an empty hospital bed.

He writes about Africa and colonialism. In “Kung’anda”, he contests the one-dimensional portrait of Africa in the media: the “broken man, holding / a dying child with flies around its mouth: / a story that didn’t tally with my mother’s / of childhood smiles on granddad’s farm / or the laughing dance across the hot soil / to the ice-cream stand”.

Chingonyi’s writing conveys strong, powerful emotions in brief snapshots. There is no hyperbole here or wordy sentences. For example, in “How to Cry”, which is my personal favourite:

I’m going to fold, as an overloaded trestle folds,
in the middle of Romsford Market and bawl
the way my small niece bawls for her mother
when she leaves the room. In spite
of our assurances, the little one knows
that those who leave might never come back.

I’m tired of this strength. Let me be bereft,
watching the white limousine as it drives away.

Get this book. You won’t regret it.

The Rosie Project: Graeme Simsion

Don Tillman, a geneticist at an Australian university, is not only intelligent and good-looking but a decent cook to boot. He decides that he needs a wife, which you would think shouldn’t be hard. But Don’s manner tends to put women off. He tends to take everything literally and is not good at picking up on non-verbal signals that are so much a part of how we communicate (a touch of Asperger’s syndrome?). For example, when someone says, “Tell me about it!”, he tries to do exactly that.

Don has his life figured out. He has a weekly timetable of meals which never changes, so he doesn’t have to think about food or what to buy. What he needs is a mate who won’t upset his perfectly organized routine. So, with some help from his friend Gene (his other friend is Gene’s wife), he devises a 16-page questionnaire that Gene helps him distribute to possible candidates.

But, as we all know, life never works out as planned. Rosie walks into Don’s office, and Don, assuming she has filled out his questionnaire, asks her for a date. Rosie hasn’t filled out the questionnaire—just as well because she would have failed abysmally: she smokes, is always late and doesn’t eat meat. She is actually there to ask Don to help her find her biological father. But she takes him up on the date, and so begins an unusual love story. The two may be unfathomable to the people around them, but they understand each other, and it is a treat watching the relationship develop.

The story is narrated by Don, whose manner made me realize just how much of our interaction relies on the unspoken and indirect communication. The book is funny, and Don and Rosie are both wonderful characters. Don has narrowed down the number of men who could be Rosie’s fathers, and there are hilarious situations when Don and Rosie try to get DNA samples from them—stealing cups, napkins, cigarette butts, toothbrushes—anything they can get their hands on.

It’s not just the love story that is enjoyable. Don’s narration is what makes the book different. He is unsentimental (but not unfeeling), and constantly analyses situations, trying to understand emotions. “As I handed the filled tube to Rosie to put in her handbag, I noticed her hands were shaking. I diagnosed anxiety, presumably related to the imminent confirmation of paternity.” Graeme Simsion uses him—or his point of view—to hold a mirror up to us, to how we engage with each other and the kind of games we play.

If you’re looking for a run-of-the-mill love story, this book is not for you. But if you’re looking for something light but intelligent, witty and heart-warming, then get this book.

The Man Who Loved Dogs: Leonardo Padura, translated by Anna Kushner


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“If the social dream and economic utopia supporting it had become corrupt to the core, what remained of the greatest experiment man had ever dreamed of?”

It is easy to forget today how seductive the idea of communism was for generations of intellectuals the world over. They were drawn to the idea of a utopia where everyone was equal although, unfortunately, in practice it often resulted in authoritarian regimes.

In The Man Who Loved Dogs, Cuban writer Leonardo Padura looks at these “corrupted utopias”, and at one of the most influential men behind communism. The book is about Leon Trotsky and his assassin, Ramón Mercader. We don’t know very much about Ramón Mercader, but Padura’s reconstruction of his story is very convincing.

There are three strands in this book, each following the three main characters: Trotsky, Ramón and Ivan, a failed Cuban writer who meets Ramón twenty years after the assassination of Trotsky. The book is ostensibly written by Ivan.

The book’s structure allows Padura to look at the ways in which people in power corrupt the idea of communism. In the Soviet Union, Stalin had put in place a regime of fear and repression; in the Spanish civil war, during which Ramón was recruited, Soviet agents were busy manipulating the Left for their own ends; and in Cuba, communism had resulted in deprivation and the stifling of talent.

Padura’s book follows Trotsky in his exile from the Soviet Union. Trotsky is being hounded by Stalin and knows that when Stalin no longer needs him for his propaganda purposes, he will have Trotsky killed. It is fascinating to see how the idealism of early communism morphed into a brutal dictatorship. Trotsky is haunted by the fact that his actions at the start of the Bolshevik regime had opened the door for someone like Stalin. “The proletarian dictatorship was meant to eliminate the exploiting classes, but should it also repress the workers?… [I]t was not possible to allow the expression of the people’s will since this would have reversed the process itself [ie, the dictatorship]. But the abolition of that will would deprive the Bolshevik government of its basic legitimacy: once the moment arrived when the masses ceased to believe, the need arose to make them believe by force.”

Meanwhile in Spain, Ramón, who is fighting against Franco, is being manipulated by his mother, Caridad (who has an agenda of her own) and Kirov, a Soviet spy who becomes his handler. Kirov puts Ramón through increasingly intensive training, breaking him down to reshape him (at one point, Kirov thinks of Ramón as “his creature”). Both men change their names constantly, and the author, by referring to them by their current names emphasizes their shape-shifting natures.

Ivan grows up in Cuba during the 1960s and 70s, at a time when Cubans were kept from knowing anything that would destroy their faith in the Revolution, such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Similarly, any creativity that challenged the Revolution was discouraged. The short story Ivan submits to his university magazine is branded “almost counter-revolutionary” by the magazine’s director. And this is the insidious way in which fear can shape people: Ivan leaves the director’s office feeling fearful and confused but, most of all, grateful that no measures would be taken against him and determined to prove that he is worthy of the regime’s trust. But Ivan stops writing, and it is not until he meets “the man who loved dogs” that he thinks of picking up his pen again.

The man whom Ivan meets is, of course, Ramón. Ivan sees him walking on the beach in Havana and is fascinated by his two Borzois (as the title indicates, dogs—especially Borzois or Russian wolfhounds—form a common thread through the book: Trotsky is also fond of dogs). The two men get talking, and Ramón starts to confide in Ivan.

This is a complex book, not an easy read but well worth the effort. I loved the way Padura structures the book, with the action moving back and forth between the three stories. He plays with time: as Ramón gets closer to Trotsky, the timing of the chapters is a bit off. For example, you see Trotsky watering his plants for the last time, but the following chapter on Ramón takes place the day before. It is a little disconcerting but when the two timelines come together with Ramón assassinating Trotsky, it feels like a collision.

Every single one of the book’s characters comes alive. But Trotsky, most of all, jumps off the page as a larger-than-life character (as I suspect he was in reality). Like all people with a big idea, he is unable to see how his single-mindedness affects those around him, even though he knows that he and his family are in danger. This book is a dissection of the corrupting influence of politics. All the characters are affected, directly or indirectly, by Stalin’s campaign against Trotsky.

There are a few things that jar in the translation, like “gave an ear” instead of “lent an ear”, “two times” instead of “twice” and “could care less” instead of “couldn’t care less”. All of these detract from an otherwise excellent translation and could have been picked up by an editor.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this intricately plotted book and would recommend it without hesitation.