Post-Communist Power Plays
- David Manicom (Author)
Anna's Shadow. Véhicule Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Robert Hough (Author)
The Culprits. Random House Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Reece Steinberg
Details so complete and obscure that they betray the author's obsession drive Russian-Canadian novel The Culprits. Robert Hough stitches together the mundane and the bizarre, Canadian pop-trivia and post-communist Russia, and delivers a chaotically fantastic nerdy read.
Inspired by a recent trauma, middle-aged Torontonian Hank Wallins devotes hours at his dead-end job to searching for an internet bride. He wades through a hundred profiles on FromRussiaWithLove.com until finding Anya who replies to his emails. Anya is quiet but kind. Anya, down to her inward-turning left eye, is the spitting image of Martine, a sex-worker from Marseilles and the most special of Hank's meager collection of past lovers.
Hough includes elements of a stereotypical modern love story in Hank and Anya's convenient partnership; Hank tries to compensate for his blandness with gifts while Anya yearns for the bad-boy Dagestani she left at home, but the minute details of Hank's tinnitus and Anya's Russian-inflected dialogue mould the characters into the imperfect specimens of everyday life. Both main characters evoke sympathy and distaste, and a distinct realness. The Culprits swerves away from any wisps of romance when the couple becomes twisted in a Chechen terrorist scheme involving Ruslan, Anya's former lover.
The author's most tender writing describes Anya's journey back to St. Petersburg to care for her badly traumatized and tortured ex-boyfriend. Anya's return shows how much she has changed since leaving, and also how different her character is in an environment in which she is comfortable. The natural dialogue she has with Ruslan's father Dadya, and the way she steps in to care for the household strongly contrasts with the absence of care she is able to show in Toronto and the awkwardness of her and Hank's interactions. While the style of writing is consistent throughout the book, the flavour and texture change rapidly. Hough describes the scenes of Ruslan's physical and psychological torture, Anya's bleak view of her life with Hank, and Anya's bittersweet return to Russia, the most dramatically written parts of the book, each in its own powerful but distinct language.
Anna's Shadow makes particle physics sexy, surveillance and spies commonplace. Adrian Wells is a young Canadian diplomat, unequipped to be Anna Mikataev's questionner and main contact with the outside world. Anna's world had been laboratories and sub-atomic particles until she was accused of a suspicious crime and ended up confined to the Canadian Embassy's basement in Moscow. David Manicom's convoluted story folds together various settings and periods of time, from the 1990s to the present-day. It successfully depicts many very different, difficult lives influenced by the uncertainty of post-communist Russia, a sprinkling of Canadian and Russian government agencies, and particle physics. Manicom show great skill in exposing the tensions between characters: Adrian's devotion to Anna complicates his marriage, a of two people so alike they are nearly non-communicative. The slew of governmental acronyms and photon-related subject matter are handled clearly and competently. Manicom informs the reader without interrupting the flow of the book or providing a surplus of facts.
Brilliant descriptions of Russian landmarks, anonymous landscapes, and other settings provide a true-to-life back to the characters: "From above, the full scope of the labyrinth becomes visible. The soaring red bricks walls of the Kremlin and its burning golden domes. . . . Cut to the quiet warmth of a cell, Anna's Mikataev's hand cradling a cigarette." Manicom's flowing phrases and the crisp images they evoke push the story forward while encouraging the reader to take time to bask in the flavour of each bit of text. It is no surprise that the author is a Canadian foreign service officer and has lived in Moscow. His intimate knowledge of the city and of Russian culture makes the book seem effortlessly authentic and knowledgeable without sounding like a dry lesson in foreign affairs.
Both Anna's Shadow and The Culprits explore the social, cultural, and political differences between the two geographically similar countries, as well as shifting power dynamics between characters. In Anna's Shadow, Anna, captive for her own safety, and largely dependent on Adrian uses clever stories and her innate magnetism to reverse their roles. From her place in the embassy basement, she develops a powerful hold over the Canadian, upsetting the relationship between the debriefer and the captive. In a similar way, Anya, a Russian immigrant to Canada in The Culprits, is completely dependent on Hank financially, as well as for her ability to stay in the country. Her emotional hold over him disrupts this power balance, leading him to lose a great part of his wealth in the hopes of saving her ex-lover. In both books, power struggles add welcome tension to the stories, and seemingly weak Russian characters show surprising skill in dominating their Canadian counterparts.
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MLA: Steinberg, Reece. Post-Communist Power Plays. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 26 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 142 - 144)
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