A review of ‘Midnight in St Petersburg’ by Vanora Bennett

*Advance review*
(Century, April 2013)

In a city brimming with unrest and on the brink of revolution, one young woman steps off a train in possession of stolen papers and in search of a refuge from the violent pogroms of Kiev. Welcomed into the Leman family, Inna becomes an apprentice in their violin-making workshop and as she carves out her place in St Petersburg, she also gains a newfound confidence in herself.

midnight-st-petersburg-220x338As political tensions escalate, Inna finds herself torn between two men who represent very different paths. Wild and quick-tempered, Yasha throws himself into revolutionary politics with abandon. Their relationship, while built on passion and desire, also has the potential to destroy the safety of the life that Inna has created. On the other hand, respectable Englishman Horace, with a position at the prestigious Fabergé jewelry house, represents security and steady, unerring loyalty.

As the situation in St Petersburg becomes increasingly dangerous, Inna is forced to choose between following her head or her heart.

I loved this book. Set in one of the most tumultuous periods of Russian history, the reader experiences some of the most important events of the period through the eyes of an ordinary family who are just trying to live and to stay afloat. From a historical point of view, we’re introduced to some of the key figures of the time, from Rasputin to Lenin, and it really shone a light on the cultural and religious differences of the people living in St Petersburg at the time and the how events impacted on these different groups.

As someone who’s trying to learn Russian (albeit extremely slowly!) I really enjoyed how the author added little details explaining the nuances of Russian language and customs. I can only imagine how tough it would have been – and probably still is – to live in Russia as a foreigner. I also loved that the character of Horace was based on the real life story of the author’s great-uncle, it gave the novel a really personal touch.

One thing that I would say is that it took me a while to get really into the story. I didn’t immediately relate to Inna as a character, I found she came across as quite dispassionate and almost calculating. That said, as a young Jewish woman fighting for her survival, that’s probably exactly who she needed to be, and the tone contributed to the overall feeling of distrust and of tension revolutionary Russia. Still, it would have been great to have a bit more information about the central characters earlier on in the novel, as it might have helped me to become emotionally invested in them a bit earlier on.

By the end though, I was completely hooked. It was fast paced, packed full of tension and led up to a really satisfying conclusion. A definite must read for anyone interested in historical fiction!

(Massive thanks to the publishers for the review copy – much appreciated and enjoyed!)

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