A novel that doesn’t read like any other, ranking as this renowned British author’s best.
Inside the provocative, philosophical, acerbic Amis (Yellow Dog, 2003, etc.), there has long seemed to be a Russian novelist straining to break out. Here, then, is Amis’s contemporary version of a classic Russian novel, with references to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (as well as a totalitarian allegory along the lines of Orwell’s Animal Farm). Though not epic in length, the narrative sees World War II, its dictatorial aftermath and the distinctions between East and West, and good and evil, through the memory of an 86-year-old Russian whose life was transformed by his 14-year enslavement in the Gulag. He feels that he must make a pilgrimage to the camp, for it was there that he was reunited with his brother and learned that his brother had married the woman they both loved (or at least lusted after). As described by the narrator, this Jewish woman, Zoya, is so great a caricature of such sexual abundance that she seems the literary equivalent of Jessica Rabbit, though it’s one of the narrator’s peculiarities that he is more prone to objectifying rather than humanizing, and not only in his relationships with women. The first-person memoir (or confession) confirms Amis’s mastery of tone and the ambiguities of character, as the narrator addresses his recollection to his thoroughly Westernized daughter, revealing secrets a father should never share. (It’s telling that the narrator and his daughter both have ties to Chicago, which serves as a backdrop and is so strongly associated with Amis’s literary mentor, Saul Bellow.) Though the novel never succumbs to overbearing polemics, it nevertheless provides a socio-cultural critique of the past six decades, as dehumanized violence and subverted desires threaten to crush the human spirit and the emergence of a “Fourth World” throws everything up for grabs. In the process, the novel sustains the narrative momentum of a mystery, though it seems that some mysteries can never be solved.
The most compelling fiction from Amis in more than a decade.