Montefiore’s (The Romanovs, 2016, etc.) World War II novel traces 10 eventful days in the life of Benya Golden, a Russian political prisoner who has joined the fight against the Nazis.
It's July 1942, and the Russian army is in disarray: though they are still officially on the Allied side, many soldiers have defected and joined the fight for Hitler. But Russians on both sides, as depicted by Montefiore, are invariably monsters who rape and murder at the slightest provocation. So it makes little sense that Golden, a writer in his 40s who's been a prisoner and a soldier but has never killed anyone, has survived to this point—especially since his regiment of prisoners is deemed expendable by Stalin and sent on a series of suicide missions. The book doesn’t really come to life until the middle, when Golden, who has strayed from his regiment and been wounded, falls in love with Fabiana, the Italian nurse who saves his life. Pursued as a Jew by the Nazis and as a defector by the Allies, Golden must choose between losing his love and endangering her life. This gives the book all the romance it needs, but Montefiore also adds a subplot in which Stalin’s daughter falls in love with a wartime journalist. These sections underline his point about Stalin’s brutality but are sentimentally written and do little to advance the story.
A novel this ambitious could use a little more moral nuance, as the characters are either all good or (in most cases) all evil. Yet the gritty war scenes and the lovers’ pursuit keep the pages turning.