Thursday, January 20, 2011

book review: One Hot Summer in St Petersburg by Duncan Fallowell

A writer heads to St Petersburg in the early 1990s to find a refuge to write about the English countryside but finds a city and a country changing rapidly and so completely absorbing that he spends weeks finding out about Russia and Russians rather than working on his writing.

The world that Fallowell is describing is one that operates to a different beat from the West, a feature that is both exhausting and captivating for a Westener. There is a brutality, frankness and openness that the Russians display that at moments is frightening and at other times rather attractive.

This is a city in transition but still weighed down by its past. That past stretches back over the 300 years of its existence and the Russians seems to be deeply aware of their history.

But they are also keen to move away from the years of dictatorship and embrace the freedoms they were denied for so long to speak their minds, party and make decisions about the lives for themselves.

Fallowell moves through this world brilliantly describing the different characters and the City and how the past casts such a long shadow over the present.

From slightly mad professors, party goers and artists he takes the reader on a journey through the City meeting numerous people working out what change means for them and their world.

But central to the story is the relationship between the author and the Russian sailor Dima. I'm not going to spoil the ending of the book for others but this is a powerful story that leaves you both shocked and deeply moved.

The fate of the young in Russia, as seen through the erratic life of Dima seems to sum up the dangers of a country that has replaced the authority of the state with a mixture of mafia muscle and old KGB bosses sitting in the Kremlin.

This book is a record of a period in Russian history that was exciting, dangerous and highly unpredictable and Fallowell has the ability to have you laughing at the antics of his landlady one minute and holding back the tears as you struggle to come to terms with the brutality of the country in the next.

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