Lebedev follows up Oblivion (2016), his powerful novel about the atrocities of the gulag, with this autobiographical tale of a boy's coming-of-age during the years leading to the fall of the Soviet Union.
A "child of an earthquake" who was shaken from his mother's womb in Moscow by tectonic waves emanating from Bucharest, our unnamed protagonist spends much of the novel trying to shake the unsettled state into which he was born. The unspoken past, his country's and his family's, is no mere backdrop for his adventures. The ghostly mysteries of the Stalin era and its aftermath impinge on his every thought and feeling, intensified by his discovery of simple objects that provide clues to his family's participation in those events. The boy is largely raised by his war-widowed grandmothers, one of peasant stock, the other from a noble line, both tied in different ways to the Communist Party. As the system unravels, chaos increasingly infects people's lives, as does a "tyranny of necessities" emblematized by the ready availability of shoes but not spare shoelaces. The Chernobyl disaster deepens our hero's free-floating fear and intensifies his desire to create his own alternative reality. He pursues a friendship with an enigmatic adult named Ivan and risks contact with a child killer called Mister who is on the loose outside his family's dacha. While the latter half of the book has a certain romantic streak in introducing the hero to personal freedom, or at least the possibility of letting down his guard, the obsessive early sections boast such a relentless, close-in intensity the effect can be claustrophobic. But it's a good kind of claustrophobia: you read and reread Lebedev's lyrical, cutting prose with equal amounts of awe and enjoyment.
This gorgeously written, unsettling novel—a rare work about the fall of the Soviet Union as told through the eyes of a child—leaves us with a fresh understanding of that towering moment in recent history.