Blackwell’s little slip of a debut derives from the life of the real biologist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov as it tells the story of a fictional scientist who survives the siege of Leningrad and life under Stalinism.
The narrator is a scientist in the Leningrad botanical “institute,” which is overseen and run by the Vavilov-based “great director”—until, that is, that gifted scientist is declared a reactionary by the Stalinists and later (in 1941) removed and secretly imprisoned. The narrator, in his own confessional tale (he tells it years later, from a “comfortable New York apartment”), openly admits his own moral weaknesses, not only as lover, but as scientist and moral being. Though married to the gentle Alena, a passionate and dedicated biologist, he’s less than true to her, and is, in fact, something of a roué. That weakness alone might not have mattered so much had it not been for the sufferings of WWII, especially the horrors of the 1942 “winter of hunger” during the siege. The institute is a place of experiment but also an archive—holding specimens of seeds, grains, and tubers from all over the world. And even though, as the famine worsens, the scientists vow not to eat the specimens (but to “protect them at all cost”), the narrator secretly nibbles at them during his shifts as guard—and thus survives, while others, like Alena herself, sicken and die. It seems to be Blackwell’s intent that her narrator’s belated candor (“Maybe I am a coward and maybe I am not”) will give him a moral stature and psychological weight sufficient to carry her novel through—but, unfortunately, that just isn’t so. Every detail—historical, geographical, botanical—is perfect and in its place, and the material itself is gripping. Yet the fiction, psychologically, remains penurious, brittle, unalive.
Ambitiously conceived, carefully planned, impeccably researched—but, like a kind of term-paper–novel, curiously unmoving.