I have been completely enthralled, obsessed and consumed by The Bronze Horseman
by Paullina Simons so I wanted to become a bit of a pusher for it.
What is it? TBH is a novel set around the harrowing siege of Leningrad during WW2 (for those who are unfamiliar with that part of history, the Germans besieged the city, which refused to surrender, and in the resulting siege, which lasted for two-and-a-half years (!!!!), over 1,500,000 people died).
If you are looking for a panoramic take on the siege and WW2 in the Soviet Union, you are better off reading non-fiction, to be honest. What TBH is - is an amazingly passionate and tender character study and love story. The characters who are being explored are Tatiana* Metanova, a 17-yr-old factory worker, eventual nurse, and Alexander Belov, a 22-yr-old officer in the Soviet Army. We are almost constantly in their heads (though the focus is primarily on Tanya) but I did not feel constrained by that focus - instead I couldn't get enough.
* I wonder if she's named Tatiana because of Tatiana Savicheva
, a young girl who died of starvation and whose harrowing diary of Leningrad siege, was so famous.
The novel starts on June 21, 1941 - the day Hitler invaded USSR. It is also the day before Tanya's 17th birthday. She's part of a close, loving, though sometimes too constricting family, and as she is waiting to catch a bus, her gaze crosses with that of a young officer. They feel drawn to each other from that very first moment, and the novel's strength is convincing me of their unshakeable, unkillable bond - despite family complications, despite a secret of Alexander's past (not to spoil anything, but let's say a Soviet military tribunal would probably shoot him on the spot if they knew) and, of course, despite the horrors of war - the bombings, the starvation, the front line (Alexander fighting on it and Tanya being a nurse on the same). And despite their characters - they might love each other more than breathing but both are very strong and stubborn individuals who often cannot give an inch. Tanya starts the book as a shy, naive and very sheltered teen, a little solipsistic about her world and Alexander is overly contained and burned-out, but by the end of the book they have been transformed by their love and loss and horrors of war and Tanya becomes an amazing woman, making her own way, alone, across the frozen parts of Finland and Alexander finds both hope and humanity.
I have a confession - I usually cannot stand fiction about Russia written by non-Russians because it rings false. Yet I did not feel that sense of frustration at all here and was shocked, until I found out Ms. Simons was born and brought up in Leningrad and later immigrated with her family. That background informs a lot of the book - from familiarity with Leningrad streets, to the feel of Soviet reality, to the correct use of diminutives (you have no idea how happy I was to see the heroine, Tatiana, being addressed as Tanya, Tatya, Tanyushka etc and Alexander is often referred to as Shura). There are a few things that stick out a bit but they can be attributable to creating dramatic tension and are minor (e.g. I cannot imagine Tanya having her own hospital room when she broke her leg, but I can fanwank it as hospital being pretty empty due to evacuation and it's necessary for the scene that follows). I wonder if this book works for me so well because it's basically about my grandparents' generation - all of whom either fought in the war or were involved in the war effort (one of my great-uncles was one of the Soviet soldiers who took Berlin with his tank brigade). Maybe that is why I don't find the story far-fetched - I know some much more incredible than that.
But what works for me the most in the book is that it manages to convince me that Tanya and Shura's love really is that strong, that amazing, that desperate, that much greater than death. I can fully believe that she cannot breathe without him and that he would die for her without a second's hesitation. You have no idea how rare that is.
Apparently this has been optioned to be made into a movie but, frankly, I don't see how they will make it work - so much of the book's magic is in the writing and in being inside the characters' heads. Take that away and it becomes another epic wartime romance. There is nothing wrong with the latter but it's nowhere near as amazing as the book turned out to be.
I cannot wait to get my hands on the sequel "Tatiana and Alexander" because I cannot get enough of them.
One note - I believe some people might find the language a bit overwrought or baroque. I don't, but Russian in general would be pretty baroque and overwrought by English standards (a common endearment is to call someone "my soul" or "my sun"). In any event, here is a small bit (from the sequel but the type of writing is the same) to determine if it works for you or doesn't:"He is lying on dirty straw. He has been beaten so many times, his body is one bloodied bruise; he is filthy, he is hideous, he is a sinner and he is utterly unloved. At any moment, at any instant, he will be put on a train in his shackles and taken through Cerberus's mouth to Hades for the rest of his wretched life. And it is at that precise moment that the light shines from the door of his dark cell #7, and in front of him Tatiana stands, tiny, determined, disbelieving, having returned for him. Having abandoned the infant boy who needs her most to go find the broken beast who needs her most. She stands mutely in front of him and doesn't see the blood, doesn't see the filth, sees only the man, and then he knows; he is not cast out. He is loved."
Anyway, go read!!!!