I have enjoyed Simon Sebag Montefiore's TV series, most recently the one on the history of Byzantium, but I have never read any of his books. So I was delighted to receive this one from the publisher and curious to find out if I would enjoy it.
It opens in the final months of the Second World War with the shooting of two teenage friends in Moscow. However, as one of the investigating policemen says, 'These aren't just any dead children.' Their parents are high up in government, as are the parents of their friends. They belonged to a secret club called The Fatal Romantics Club, seeming innocent and childish, but suddenly under the glare of the investigation it becomes much more. The inquiry into the deaths becomes like a sinkhole opening up in the lives of everyone who knew this boy and girl. It gets bigger and bigger and more and more people are drawn in - friends, siblings, parents, teachers.
I thought that this book was so good at evoking the poisonous atmosphere of Stalinist Russia. It's not something I know much about, I recognised very few of the real life characters in it. Being close to Stalin was no guarantee of safety. He was so unstable and capricious that you could be his favourite one day and arrested the next. No-one could reveal the slightest suggestion of doubt in his leadership. No-one could be trusted, not even your own family. There was always someone prepared to betray, either through ambition, or fear, or because they genuinely believed in communism. I actually found some parts of it quite distressing to read.
In the afterword Simon Sebag Montefiore writes, "This is not a novel about power but about private life - above all, love." I much preferred the parts of the story about the politics to the parts about the love affairs. The horror of being caught in the web around Stalin with no way to escape, and no choice but to play the game to survive was so powerfully rendered. I also found the descriptions of how the mothers felt when their children were being arrested very powerful and moving. They were so terrified and so helpless.
I really enjoyed this, it's a proper page-turner and kept me gripped to the end. I will definitely read more by Simon Sebag Montefiore.