In Bray’s debut novel, two soldiers from opposing armies in the Napoleonic wars forge a friendship haunted by secrets and complicated by their mistresses.
Following Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz in 1805, the Continent was temporarily at peace. During this lull, Russian hussar Alexi Ruzhensky is living in Munich with his lover, Marianne; however, his seeming leisure conceals a deadly purpose: He’s been tasked by his father to seek revenge for the death of his younger brother, killed in battle by French officer Louis Valsin. But when Ruzhensky actually meets Valsin and the Frenchman’s beautiful, intelligent mistress, Anne-Marie, he finds himself delaying vengeance for companionship and perhaps even love. In both style and content, Bray’s novel strongly echoes European novels of centuries past; Ruzhensky is obsessed with the title character of Rousseau’s 1761 epistolary novel, Julie, and this book provides epigraphs for every chapter, while Bray’s dynamic battle scenes owe a debt to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Similarly, Bray’s prose, packed with simile and rich description, has a consciously old-fashioned feel to it: “The flower seller’s stand overflowed with delicate blooms—big carmine and yellow roses packed in tight rows, the symmetric layers of velvet petals presenting themselves like vain, human faces, aware of being admired.” The style is a wise choice since the novel almost feels as if it were written at the same time as the events it chronicles, helping to immerse readers in Bray’s story. He also succeeds in creating four fleshed-out central characters, especially the women, who could easily have become mere pawns to be moved around by the male-dominated society of the time. But while Marianne and Anne-Marie are both financially dependent on their lovers, they have histories and desires of their own, bringing them into conflict with the choices made for them, a plight paralleled by Ruzhensky’s obedience to his father and Valsin’s military ambition.
Well-researched and well-crafted, like a forgotten classic found on a dusty shelf alongside Stendhal and Hugo.