Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Nonfiction Files

The Nonfiction Files is a weekly journal of my adventures reading my toppling piles of nonfiction books. I won't be posting reviews, but rather my thoughts about what I'm reading, while I'm reading it.

My current read: Stalin's Children by Owen Matthews. You can read my first post about this book here.

Synopsis from publisher:

On a midsummer day in 1937, a black car pulled up to a house in Chernigov, in the heart of the Ukraine. Boris Bibikov-Owen Matthews's grandfather-kissed his wife and two young daughters good-bye and disappeared inside the car. His family never saw him again. His wife would soon vanish as well, leaving Lyudmila and Lenina alone to drift across the vast Russian landscape during World War II . Separated as the Germans advanced in 1941, they were miraculously reunited against all odds at the war's end.

Some twenty-five years later, in the early 1960s, Mervyn Matthews-Owen's father-followed a lifelong passion for Russia and moved to Moscow to work for the British embassy. He fell in and out with the KGB, and despite having fallen in love with Lyudmila, he was summarily deported. For the next six years, Mervyn worked day and night to get Lyudmila out of Russia, and when he finally succeeded, they married.

Decades on from these events, Owen Matthews-then a young journalist himself in Russia-came upon his grandfather's KGB file recording his "progress from life to death at the hands of Stalin's secret police." Excited by its revelations, he has pieced together the tangled and dramatic threads of his family's past and present, making sense of the magnetic pull that has drawn him back to his mother's homeland. Stalin's Children is an indelible portrait of Russia over seven decades and an unforgettable memoir about how we struggle to define ourselves in opposition to our ancestry only to find ourselves aligning with it.

My thoughts:

This second part of the book felt very much like a different story altogether. We mostly leave Mila, the author's mother - she has become a young woman, and miraculously scores a seat at a prestigious university, which she loves. The story changes now to Mervyn, the author's father, and how exactly this young man from South Wales ended up in Russia. It's a fairly interesting story, but it almost feels like I'm reading a different book - gone is the poverty and despair, and in its place is something akin to an espionage narrative. It took me a while to adjust to the shift in tone, and because I don't find Mervyn as sympathetic a character, I had a harder time caring about his difficulties.

The author intersperses his father's story with accounts of his own time in Russia. His own story could probably have been a book in its own right, and makes for an interesting comparison, as he found himself living and working in much the same areas as his father. I could never quite tell if he actually liked Russia, or just happened to find himself there and decided to go with it - hopefully that will be made more clear as the book continues.

I'm just getting to the point where his parents finally meet, so I'm looking forward to reading how their relationship is formed - stay tuned next week to see how this one wraps up.


Zibilee said...

I, too, liked this section a little less than the first. I found Mervyn to be a little to reticent for my tastes, and I just didn't find that his story during this section was that interesting. I am aware that the book would be very lopsided without the detail in this section, but I liked the beginning and ending sections better.

Meghan said...

This is the point at which I started to feel disappointed in this book. I hope you don't! Maybe I just like my memoirs a bit further back in history.

Elizabeth said...

Zibilee - I agree that we probably needed this information, but it certainly wasn't as engaging as the first section.

Meghan - uh oh. That doesn't bode well for the rest of the book.