Simon Montefiore is a scholar of Russian history and has written on the subject previously. His first novel, based on that history, was published recently and was pictured on banners in the entrance to Waterstones bookshops.
Publisher: Corgi (Random House)
First Published: 2008
Date Reviewed: 29th May 2009
Picking up a copy of Sashenka is an easy task at the moment with it being readily available and highly thought of. The quotes of critics line the covers and the blurb promises a wondrous tale. Using an illustration that is almost photographic for it’s cover, the publishers have given it a bonus first impression: we already know what the main character looks like and thus, they hope, we’ll feel a sense of intimacy even before we peruse the summary.
Sashenka, born to Jewish parents of new money, was recruited by her uncle as a Bolshevik. In joining the party she had to lie to her family and put them to the back of her mind while going about political business in secret. Her choices as a young girl ultimately decides her fate as does an affair she has during her thirties. Her actions cast a dark light on her family until a historian in the 90’s is employed to track down the details of her last days.
The story is split into three parts, the first two revolving around Sashenka and her immediate family and the last on the historian’s search, years later, to uncover the truth about the heroine. Each part is split again into bite-sized chapters making it deliciously easy to keep up with as part of a varied and busy life-style and aids it’s speed in some way. The downside to the sectioning is that the first is focused purely on a winter in St. Petersburg, a particularly dreary one which casts a certain dullness over it, making it seem practically endless.
The first thing that’s striking about Sashenka, is the myriad of details the reader is given early on. Something that isn’t apparent in the blurb is that the book requires a good working knowledge of the period. This sets it apart from many historical novels that give the audience a hearty back-story before raining down on them with cultural references. As such it may just cause the book to be unappealing to anyone wishing to learn about Russian history and chosen Sashenka as their introduction, so a quick bit of research into the era is recommended.
The writing itself is mixed in standard. Mostly it is average but there are times when the imagination can go into overdrive over its beautifully described backdrops. St. Petersburg in winter and Moscow in summer, in spite of the heavy political story, give the book the luscious landscapes one needs in order to get through the taxing chapters.
One of the biggest problems of the book is its choppy structure. It darts to different situations too quickly and Montefiore shies away from providing the physical details of characters until long after they’ve been introduced. This is a problem due to the severe lack of details given in the first sense – it’s fine at the time because one can be creative but when more details filter through it can be quite a shock to the imagination.
Above all is the sex of the author. There are few male writers who have captured both the emotions and sexuality of women well, one being Philip Pullman, and Montefiore isn’t one of them. Some of Sashenka’s sexual discoveries are portrayed in a strange light, she says the kind of things that men want to hear but women would never utter. Montefiore does not understand women to the extent that he should as a writer of them, he would’ve done better had he made his hero a man.
In conclusion, Sashenka is an easy to put down, mostly dull, and slow moving book that would have faired better as Montefiore’s second or third novel at which time he might have improved his skills in the genre. The fact that he has written only non-fiction before is obvious as the narrative is too bogged down in factual details. His characters are not fully realised and one feels little reason to really care for them as they’re given to us at face value – a great pity as the history behind it all is very real and terrible.
As an add-on to studies in Russian history it may prove valuable, otherwise it’s not worth the large number of pennies for its purchase.