by Vesna Goldsworthy
Monday, May 22, 2023
I picked this up in Waterstones on Friday afternoon. It caught my eye because it was on the spy fiction table they often have in their branches, and I’ve noticed on several occasions that every single author on it appears to be male. On this occasion this wasn’t actually the only female author name on the table, Kate Atkinson’s Transcription was there too, and I loved that book. But that was enough to get me to pick the book up. After reading a few pages standing in the shop I wasn’t convinced that the book would be great, but I liked it enough to buy it and take it home.
Once I got going though it was the kind of book I find it easy to keep reading. And it absorbed me enough that I’d finished it on the Sunday afternoon, and I don’t usually read books that quickly these days.
The book didn’t actually turn out to be a spy story, at least not in the way that I’d think of that genre, but I don’t think the book was mis-shelved all the same. And shelving it with the love stories that it says it is wouldn’t have been any more (or less) correct. It’s certainly not your standard happy ever after romance. It’s set between an (I think) unspecified Soviet Bloc country and London in the late 1980s. It’s about the personal rather than the political but the political gets highlighted and detailed anyway. It’s a ‘show not tell’ kind of thing I guess. The story is narrated by Milena Urbanska, who as the daughter of the vice-president of the unspecified country lives a very privileged life behind the iron curtain, and she details how she comes to end up in London, and how comparative awful that city is compared to what she is used to.
The details in the writing are just fabulous. I found the English parts of the story totally captivating. In one bit where she visits an old farmhouse in the country with no central heating, awful mattresses, terrible food, and the pets get all the luxuries the book just had the temperament of a certain kind of English people totally nailed. I was nodding along, yes, Milena, I’ve been there too and thought the same things.
Since the characters in the West were all totally believable to me, I’m willing to believe that the ones in the East are just as true to life. Nobody, even minor characters, had only one-dimension.
I really enjoyed the book, good writing, interesting plot and absorbing detail made for an unexpected page turner.