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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Monsieur Ka by Vesna Goldsworthy

Title:  Monsieur Ka
Author: Vesna Goldsworthy
Publisher: 22nd February 2018 by Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Pages: 288 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction
My Rating: 3 crowns

‘Without quite realising that I would do it until it happened, I raised myself on my toes and kissed his frozen cheek. In Paris, it would have been an unremarkable gesture. In Alexandria, an invitation. I still had no idea about London.'
The London winter of 1947. As cold as St Petersburg during the Revolution. The Karenins keep their vodka under the layers of snow in their suburban garden, in bottles entombed like their Russian past. But when a young Frenchwoman arrives to work as a companion to the aged 'Monsieur Ka' he begins to tell his story...
Albertine is the wife of a British army officer who is often abroad on covert government business. Lonely, yet eager to work, she begins to write Monsieur Ka’s life story a as a secret gift to him, and even learns his mother tongue. To her ear it is like 'the sound of falling snow'. As she is drawn into Ka’s dramatic past, her own life is shaken to its foundations. For in this family of former princes, there are present temptations which could profoundly affect her future.
My Thoughts

This is an interesting little book, seeking to cover quite an array of themes and stories. And, if I am completely honest, a few too many irons were in this fire for me; at times, I am found myself unsure of the essence of this book - what was it really all about? I have walked away from it a little unsure and a feeling like it’s unfinished.

‘Toska is one of those Russian words,’ Monsieur Carr had said, ‘which have no English equivalents. It means “a dull ache of the soul”.’

Firstly, you have Albertine and her story (along with others in the book) which is most likely the strongest theme, that being, one of displacement and the struggles - not only after a war in her case, but generally the upheaval of leaving.  This theme can also be linked to that of her husband and the Russians she encounters throughout. I think the author did a good job of conveying the loneliness and isolation felt, especially considering how frequently Albertine was left alone while her husband traveled throughout postwar Europe.

‘I came to hate her (Anna Karenina) because, when she couldn’t have us both, she wanted that other man, my father’s rival and namesake, more than she wanted me.’

The story I probably enjoyed most was that of Sergei Alexandrovich, whos original surname was Karenin, thus making him the son of Anna from the famous Tolstoy story. The creative inclusion of Anna Karenina's story is truly very clever, helping to interweave the major themes of love and family throughout history - Albertine’s family, her husband Albert’s family and of course, Sergei (Monsieur Ka). I also really appreciated the inclusion of Sergei’s later life - marriage and imprisonment - and the decline of the Old Russian order.

“Prague, Paris, Berlin: they were all full of homeless Russians, once princes and generals, now taxi drivers and doormen in fashionable hotels.”

It was interesting to witness the production of Alexander Korda's film version of the Tolstoy book in which Sergei had a consultation role. Cameo appearances by Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier made it seem that much more real - once again, that clever combination of fact and fiction.

“The fictional lives we read about –your Anna, your Emma Bovary here –are so much more authentic than ours, and not just in the sense that they leave a deeper, more permanent mark on the world, while we, so-called real people, vanish without a trace.”

So you can see, there is quite a deal going on here and I think I would have appreciated a more singular focus on one of the above outlined aspects. All up, it’s about the stories we are told, or tell ourselves, but I just feel the delivery could have been a little smoother. That is not to say that the writing suffers - it is clearly evident that Goldsworthy is a serious writer.

‘We harm no one but ourselves by feeling slighted; we carry acid in our soul even when it eats nothing but the vessel it is stored in.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release

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