His­tor­i­cal novel is strong on de­tail

Themes of hu­man mor­tal­ity gov­ern Em­press

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - VIT WAG­NER

By Eva Stach­niak Dou­ble­day Canada

In his mis­chie­vously provoca­tive novel HHhH, a fic­tion­al­ized ac­count of the Sec­ond World War as­sas­si­na­tion of high-rank­ing Nazi hench­man Rein­hard Hey­drich, au­thor Lau­rent Binet fre­quently pauses the ac­tion to pon­der openly about the va­lid­ity of his­tor­i­cal in­ven­tion.

And yet, for all its metafic­tional con­ceit — and, make no mis­take, HHhH does make the reader think long and hard about the le­git­i­macy of em­bel­lish­ing the lives of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures — the novel spins an ab­sorb­ing ac­count of what hap­pened on those ten­sion­fraught days in Prague in 1942. At the end of the day, Binet re­minds us that his­tor­i­cal fic­tion’s first duty is to fic­tion, not his­tory.

His­tor­i­cal fic­tion, on a some­what less ex­alted level than HHhH, is a solid sta­ple of the pub­lish­ing busi­ness.

Eva Stach­niak’s Em­press of the Night is her sec­ond novel about Rus­sian ruler Cather­ine the Great. Not, strictly speak­ing, a se­quel to The Win­ter Palace, which charted the life of an up­wardly mo­bile Pol­ish woman who served as one of Cather­ine’s at­ten­dants, Em­press of the Night of­fers a par­al­lel nar­ra­tive told from Cather­ine’s per­spec­tive, as the ex­tra­or­di­nary Rus­sian monarch looks back on life from her deathbed.

The novel, based on Cather­ine’s mem­oirs, probes its pro­tag­o­nist’s strug­gle to as­sert her place in a world dom­i­nated by men. It is also steeped in themes of mor­tal­ity, and the re­al­ity that all lives, no mat­ter how ex­alted, are gov­erned by el­e­ments that are “ut­terly and bru­tally ba­nal.” Even an em­press who rules over mil­lions of sub­jects and the un­fath­omably vast do­min­ion of Rus­sia, is prey to the hum­bling af­front of cor­po­real de­cline.

Cather­ine, ar­riv­ing in Rus­sia as a mi­nor Ger­man duchess be­trothed to the heir of the Ro­manov line, sur­vived sev­eral set­backs to be­come one of the great­est rulers in Rus­sian his­tory. Her hold on the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion to­day is largely owed to a re­put­edly vo­ra­cious sex­ual ap­petite that, ac­cord­ing to im­plau­si­bly apoc­ryphal leg­end, caused her to meet her end on the un­der­side of a horse. Stach­niak, a Pol­ish-born writer who moved to Canada in 1981, gives us Cather­ine’s life­long pa­rade of lovers, whose dif­fer­ence in age from her grew steadily greater with time, but she also em­pha­sizes Cather­ine’s stature as a pro­gres­sive En­light­en­ment fig­ure who op­posed cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment and the use of tor­ture to ex­tract con­fes­sions.

The Win­ter Palace was a rel­a­tively con­ven­tional novel. Read­ers of that best­seller might ini­tially be daunted by the less straight­for­ward nar­ra­tive ap­proach in Em­press of the Night, which emerges through a se­ries of vi­gnettes that shift back and forth in time. A con­sis­tent strength of both books is Stach­niak’s un­fail­ing at­ten­tion to de­tail, whether de­scrib­ing the pain of child­birth or the man­ner of a courtier’s be­hav­iour and ap­pear­ance.

Em­press of the Night

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