British author Docx follows up his debut novel (The Calligrapher, 2003) with a tale of family secrets that draw together siblings from three continents.
Gabriel Glover, living in London, and his twin sister Isabella, in New York, are equally at loose ends in trendy but unfulfilling jobs and live-in relationships that don’t really engage them. When the novel opens, the two have no notion that they have a half brother in Russia. They will not meet Arkady Artamenkov until very near the story’s end, but readers learn of his existence shortly after Gabriel finds their mother dead on the floor of her St. Petersburg apartment. Maria Alexandrovna had returned from the twins’ native England to her motherland several years earlier to search for Arkady, whom she had been forced to abandon in a Soviet orphanage when she was an unwed mother at age 22. After defecting and spending more than 30 years married to irresponsible, bisexual Nicholas Glover, now living in Paris with a male lover, Maria hoped to make amends. Arkady wanted nothing to do with her, but his drug-addicted friend Henry Wheyland, who knew how embittered the brilliant pianist was by his inability to continue his classical training in chaotic post-Soviet Russia, persuaded Maria to pay for Arkady’s studies at the once state-subsidized conservatory. Her death stops the money, and Arkady goes to hunt for the half siblings who have all the privileges and ease he was denied. Docx writes densely and intelligently about complex relationships among complicated people. Self-indulgent yet scathingly honest Julian is perhaps the most fascinating character, but angry, vulnerable Arkady and self-destructive Henry come close. In the hands of a less skillful author, Gabriel and Isabella might have been irritating examples of drifting, entitled yuppies; Docx makes them intriguingly neurotic, self-aware and essentially good-hearted. As in his previous book, the final twist is a stunner, both totally unexpected and carefully prepared for.
Longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, and with good reason: well written, vigorously plotted and perceptive about human nature.