Last night I finally finished Amor Towles latest novel A Gentleman in Moscow. I do love books about far away lands, books which take me places when I'm just sitting in my armchair. And I certainly loved this book.
Set in post revolutionary Russia, Towles' novel is the story of Count Alexander Rostov, found guilty by the Soviet "Committee of the People's Commissariat" for succumbing to "the corruptions of his class" and posing a threat to the people's revolution. Saved from the firing squad because his famous poem had made him a hero of the "pre-revolutionary cause," he is sentenced to life under house arrest, the "house" being the beautiful and historic Hotel Metropol in Moscow where he has lived for four years. Summarily exiled from his luxurious suite, and moved to a tiny room at the top of the hotel, furnished with the few possessions that will fit into a garret room, he puts his feet up, toasts his lucky escape with sympathetic members of the staff, and prepares to make the best of his confinement, to "reconcile" himself to his changed circumstances. And for the next thirty two years, he watches as his life and the lives of his friends, as well as the face of his country, and the world change beyond measure.
Below are several shots of the famed Metropol Hotel. Across the street from the Bolshoi Theatre, and within sight of the Kremlin, it sits in the "historic heart" of Moscow. And you can even book a standard double room for a mere $288.00 CAD. I checked.
|Evening view of Hotel Metropol in Moscow source|
|Main staircase in the lobby of Hotel Metropol source|
|Dining room at Hotel Metropol source|
I also agree with Ron Charles in his review in the Washington Post where he says that despite the book's charm, and the fact that it is an "endearing reminder of the graciousness of real class," it does have a "potential for glibness." The plot is sometimes just a bit too ingenious. The Count's witty repartee, his ability to save any social situation seems at times a bit too slick, to me. And in one or two instances he becomes almost a caricature. But, like Charles, I think it's Towles' style and the "slightly ironic" narrator which save the book from slipping into shtick, or gimmickry. That and Towles' ability to weave a tight plot, to bring back earlier mentioned minor details of plot or description which later give us several "ah ha!" moments. Not to mention his brilliant use of allusion. Especially to the film Casablanca. Trust me if you want to really get the ending of the book, you must watch Casablanca. Sigh. I love that movie.
The other book about faraway lands which I've recently read is Edna O'Brien's wonderful novel The Little Red Chairs. Set in Ireland, and London, and in the Hague, O'Brien's novel tells the story of Fidelma. Unhappy in her marriage, having failed at business, and longing for a child, for something to give meaning to her life, she meets a mysterious healer who appears one night in her village. She becomes obsessed with this mystic medical man, Vlad, as he calls himself. And her life is devastated by her association with him. And with who (and what) she and the world discover him to be.
In his review in The Independent Cole Moreton calls O'Brien's latest novel "a masterpiece." Part "adult fairy tale," part "report from a war zone," but throughout "a magical, deadly, wonderful, sickening, enchanting thing." Exactly so .... wish I'd said that.
The "war zone" Moreton refers to is the Serb siege of Sarajevo which began in April 1992 and lasted for over three years, even longer than the 900-day German siege of Leningrad in WWII. The "little red chairs" of the title refer to the 11,541 chairs, set up as an art installation in the middle of Sarajevo in 2012. Called the Sarajevo Red Line, the chairs commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Siege of Sarajevo and its 11,541 victims, 643 of whom were children. The character of Vlad in the novel, one time doctor and healer who turns out to be a war criminal, is modelled on the real life "Butcher of Bosnia" Radovan Karadzic.
|Sarajevo Red Line source|
The Little Red Chairs is a wonderfully Irish book. Lyrical in places. Bitter and violent in others. O'Brien's prose is uniquely her own. The syntax is at times a bit puzzling, but O'Brien's style is always clever... and... well, arresting, I guess you could say. According to an article I read, O'Brien was reviled in her homeland in the early days of her career, and her books banned. But these days she is feted and called the "finest writer" in Ireland. As Moreton says, in the "sixties her books were burned", but she has "risen from the ashes," so to speak. Not unlike Sarajevo itself. There's a really interesting interview with O'Brien here, if you're interested.
|Modern day Sarajevo. Photo courtesy of Michal Huniewicz|
|Old Ottoman Cemetery Photo courtesy of Michal Huniewicz|
|Shell damaged buildings in Sarajevo Photo courtesy of Michal Huniewicz|
You can have a look at the rest of Huniewicz's photography here.
|View of the city. Photo courtesy of Michal Huniewicz|
Hope you get a chance to read both of these books. They really do make you feel as if you've travelled to faraway places even while you're just sitting in your armchair. Or lolling on the sofa with a cup of tea. And when you do read them, let me know what you think. Let's have a good old natter about books.
In the meantime have a look at this. The best ending for a movie ever.
Linking up with Saturday Share over at Not Dressed as Lamb and Thursday Favourite Things at Katherine's Corner.