A call to open hearts
Reviewed by Monica Porter
IWELL REMEMBER Simon Sebag Montefiore from our briefly overlapping time as colleagues at the Daily Mail in the 1990s. Affable and polished, he had a fixation with all things Russian, and his shtick (which amused us all in the office) was to lope around in a Red Army greatcoat. In the years since then, he has emerged as an authoritative, award-winning historian, and the biographer of Stalin. And, as well as his enduring fascination with Russian history, this scion of an illustrious British Sephardi family (his great-great-uncle was the financier and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore) is equally engaged by his Jewish roots. He combines the two in Red Sky at Noon, the final novel in his Moscow Trilogy.
The story is set during summer 1942, when Hitler launched his “Case Blue” offensive across Ukraine and the plains of southern Russia towards the Don and Volga rivers, and on towards the prize of Stalingrad.
As tanks were in short supply, both the German and Soviet sides deployed cavalries instead. With the Soviets suffering heavy losses, Stalin called upon an additional human resource, the wretched and expendable prisoners of the gulags, to form penal battalions (called shtraf- bats). They could “win redemption” by spilling blood — their own as well as the enemy’s — for the Motherland.
One such prisoner is the Jewish writer Benya Golden, serving 25 years after being wrongly convicted of treason. He joins a penal cavalry unit made up of assorted devious criminals and Cossacks. In a dramatic battle, they charge headlong with sabres drawn into the Italian cavalry, who have joined their German allies in the offensive.
Benya is among the handful who survive the massacre of his shtrafbat. Wounded and caught behind enemy lines, he is in danger from all sides — from the Wehrmacht and their Axis allies; from the Soviets who might execute him for “desertion”; and from the SS, who, together with antisemitic Russian defectors, are slaughtering Jews as they find them.
Luckily for Benya, he is cared for by an Italian nurse, the beauteous Fabiana. The pair fall in love and attempt to flee the turmoil together on horseback across the scorching plains, eastwards to the Don and possible salvation.
The book’s historical background is intriguing and, if I found the fictional love story a tad gushy, preferring my history as straight non-fiction, Simon has more than earned his stripes in that department, and if he wants to go a little Tolstoyan (in its fictional implications) that’s fine by me.
Monica Porter is a freelance journalist and author. Sebag Montefiore: equally engaged with Russian history and Jewish roots
THIS IS How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (Headline £16.99) is a brave, generous and audacious novel, which tackles the impact on a family coming to terms with having a transgender child. The story is told with great skill, humour and tenderness and presents challenging situations and complicated family dynamics with frankness and humanity.
It is about a family from Wisconsin who are forced to move states when their five-year old son’s safety is threatened because he dresses and clearly identifies as a girl. Once settled in Seattle, it becomes easier not to mention that “Poppy” used to be a boy, so the family becomes burdened with a secret that impacts differently on each of them.
The novel follows Poppy to the age of 10, before puberty starts, but includes questions about hormone treatment and the possibility of surgery. Poppy has four fiercely protective brothers who are each, deeply affected by her transformation. Roo, the eldest, feels resentful at the attention Poppy receives and starts acting up.
The parents, Rosie and Penn, are supportive of Poppy’s choices, though they deal with the issue of transgender in different ways. Rosie, a doctor, looks for clinical answers, while Penn, a writer and stay-at-home dad, a little unrealistically, wants to create a “fairytale” ending for his daughter.
Laurie Frankel is herself the parent of a transgender child, though the family never had to hide their daughter’s gender history.
Nor were they subjected to rejection or prejudice as her imagined family are. But she was persuaded by her publishers that her novel needed more plot and conflict. And, perhaps as a result, there are too many characters, making it difficult, for example, to differentiate between the four older boys. Overall, however, the book is wellconstructed and certainly readable.
Frankel says parenting a transgender child has taught her to keep an open mind about what the future holds. This is probably a good lesson for all parents. In an interview with the New Zealand Herald, Frankel said: “I hope the transgender aspect serves as a metaphor for anything that’s not quite the norm… We need to love more, tolerate more and open our hearts more because that’s what will make the world a better place”. This is Frankel’s third novel and I found it tender, moving, and educational. SIPORA LEVY