Russia and repression
David Herman considers ‘a new Dr Zhivago’. Amanda Hopkinson on a cultural collection
SANA KRASIKOV is part of a remarkable group of young Jewish writers born in the former Soviet Union in the 1970s, most of whom came to the United States as children. Others include Keith Gessen (All The Sad Young Literary Men), Boris Fishman (A Replacement Life), Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) and David Bezmozgis (The Betrayers). Together, they have taken the American literary scene by storm.
Krasikov’s first book, One More Year, a collection of short stories, appeared to huge acclaim in 2008. It was awarded the Jewish Book Council’s $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in 2009. Now, she has published her first novel, The Patriots, a historical tale moving between eight decades, three generations and two continents of upheaval in a compelling piece of story-telling.
A 64-year-old man sits alone in his hotel room reading a huge pile of papers. They take him back to his early childhood as he remembers standing in his family apartment watching what will be the determining moment of his life, the arrest of his mother by the Soviet secret police.
The Patriots tells the story of that man as a boy, with his parents moving between 1930s America, the Soviet Union in the darkest days of Stalinism and Putin’s Russia today. Florence Fein, a young, feisty woman from Brooklyn is disillusioned with America during the Depression. She leaves her close-knit Jewish family and moves to Soviet Russia,
full of youthful idealism, and what follows is a story of tragic disillusion.
This gives nothing away because in the very first pages of Krasikov’s huge novel we meet her and her son as she returns from seven years in the Gulag. This is a brave move by Krasikov because it means that for over four hundred pages we already know what has hap- pened to Florence. But it is a tribute to the young author that the novel is full of suspense and jaw-dropping twists and turns, worthy of John Le Carré.
Krasikov has a real gift for storytelling. She combines love affairs with brilliant evocations of Stalinism, from detailed accounts of Soviet state orphanages to examples of Russian antisemitism and the brutality of allnight interrogations by the secret police. She has a real eye for detail, whether it’s the kind of food served in an orphanage or ads in post-war, American glossy magazines.
Through these details and superb historical research, Krasikov creates a world that feels completely authentic, whether she’s describing the desperate squalor of apartments in 1930s Moscow or young American businessmen on expense accounts getting drunk on vodka 70 years later.
The best scenes are about betrayal, how people are driven to betray their closest friends, be it under Stalin or Putin. Best of all, Krasikov moves between different times and places, keeping the reader guessing all the time. It is a compelling and sometimes desperately moving read.
Some have called The Patriots, “a Dr Zhivago for our times”. Such a comparison raises the bar. At the very least, this is an astonishing first novel by a very gifted young writer.
An interview with Sana Krasikov will appear in next week’s JC. She will be speaking at Jewish Book Week with Michael Goldfarb and Boris Fishman on March 5. David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer
It is full of suspense and jaw dropping twists and turns’
Sana Krasikov: grand historical range in an astonishing debut novel