Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Ageing ballerina Nina Revskaya, formerly of the Bolshoi, now lives in Boston and has decided to sell her extensive collection of jewellery to help support the Ballet Company she has worked for in her later years.  However, renewed interest in the history of the treasures alongside her increasing frailty and illness makes Nina reluctantly dwell on her past.
The book combines a modern day story with Nina's earlier experiences before she defected to the West; working through the ranks to become a star dancer, known as the "butterfly" to the exclusion of almost everything else, including the dangers and motives of the people around her.

Drew is managing the details of the auction and is fascinated by Nina's reticence to discuss the jewels and her own past.  A set of amber earrings and bracelet are particularly interesting and the intrigue increases when university professor, Grigori Solodin, donates a matching necklace to auction alongside the Revskaya collection.  Drew searches for specific details of the owner, whilst Grigori has his own reasons for the personal interest in the history of Nina and her husband the poet, Victor Elsin.

I think it's pretty clear that I read this partly due to my current ballet fixation (sorry - it's still ongoing!) and my love of historical fiction.  Although I know quite a lot about about the ballet, I'm pretty ignorant about Russia, particularly the era covered in this book, so it was an interesting read.  The descriptions of life in the Bolshoi were realistic and contrasted the beauty created on stage with the hard work, physical tolls and seediness of backstage life.  The historical aspect was well done and obviously well researched without coming across as inserting big chunks of a text book into the plot.  A claustrophobic atmosphere was created where the characters had to cope with the bleakness, lack of privacy and poverty of everyday life, where there was real danger in being seen not to conform.  I thought it was brave that many of the main characters in this section weren't particularly likable, although by the end of the book most have redeemed themselves.  It showed people in frightening circumstances managing the best way they can.

As I became absorbed in the Russian back story, I actually found the modern day sections with Grigori and Drew a bit of an irritation.  They are both thoroughly decent characters and are needed to shed light on Nina's earlier decisions and the eventual reveal, but I wasn't really bothered.  It was also difficult at first to see how the young Nina became the old (not very nice) Nina, but that became more apparent as the story developed.

I really enjoyed this book and its unravelling mystery.  Just to be really picky there was a couple of things could have put me off!  Firstly I didn't get the gorgeous cover that I'd seen on goodreads (go and look!) and got the rather boring cover, shown here...I've said before that I know I should judge by the cover, but let's be honest, we all do to some extent!  Secondly, the four and a half pages of quotes to tell me how wisely I'd chosen seemed a bit of overkill on behalf of the publishers, I can go for a couple of admiring quotes on the back cover, but honestly!  However, that's not the author's fault and I would recommend this as a tale of dance, history, love and betrayal...a good read!