Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Laurie Graham reviews One Night in Winter, a novel

Simon Sebag Montefiore ‘s most recent novel, One Night in Winter, poses this chilling question:  if your children were arrested and tortured, what might they tell about you?
The story takes place principally in Moscow during the summer of 1945.  As Russia celebrates victory over the Nazis, on a day of parades and rejoicing in the streets, shots ring out and two teenagers lie dead on the Kamenny Bridge. They are both pupils from School 801, a kind of Bolshevik Eton for the progeny of Stalin’s nervous, sweating, ever-shifting inner circle.

Sebag Montefiore, author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, is of course an accomplished guide into the mad, bad world of Stalin’s Russia. It’s a place where secrets  can be a matter of life and death. The school children have their Fatal Romantics’ Club. Their high-flying parents have their histories, their weaknesses and most dangerous of all, their privately held opinions of The Master, Josef Stalin.

Everything is coded: the Organs, the Little Corner, the Game, Up the Hill (to the Lubianka).  Children will play. But can children ever really be children in a state where a ten year old may be sent to Siberia and a twelve year old is eligible for the Highest Measure of Punishment, otherwise known as a bullet in the back of the neck?

Piece by piece the story demolishes our assumptions. Parents will go to any lengths to protect their young? The young will honour their parents without question? Two and two make four? Interrogation scenes swing with nauseating speed between different characters. Within the walls of the Lubianka you feel their confident sense of entitlement melting away.

Russian stories seem fated to have a cast of thousands. One Night in Winter is prefaced with a welcome and useful list of characters, fictional and real. This is a thriller so I will reveal nothing of their particular roles in the story except to paraphrase a quote and say that, like a party of roped mountaineers, if one falls they are liable to take the others with them.

I have just one slightly baffled complaint. The book’s title doesn’t make any obvious sense.  There are admittedly a couple of snowy moments but they’re relatively minor scenes. I can only conclude that ‘winter’ refers to the long, dark night of Stalin’s reign. Perhaps someone will put me straight.    

Whatever, it’s a gripper.

One Night in Winter, published 27th February 2014 by Arrow, price £7.99




Cornflower said...

It is gripping!

Penny Dolan said...

An interesting recommendation. Not sure I'd opt for a novel about Stalin's Russia but this review has encouraged me to seek out the title.