The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin and Andrew Bromfield (translator)
|The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin and Andrew Bromfield (translator)|
|Genre: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A Russian literary novel that's an antidote to the stereotypical Russian literary novel. It's un-stodgy, beautiful and as good for beach reading as it is for reading group discussion; something for most in fact.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 368||Date: February 2012|
Two lovers write letters to each other about their love, their dreams and their separate lives; lives that they hope will one day merge once again to become one. For Sasha life is the everyday grind with work and demanding loved ones along with the challenges they engender. For Volodenka, it's life in the Russian army and his eventual posting to China. However their love is more complicated than most as more than geography and circumstance stands between them: they're also separated by the decades… many, many decades.
Mikhail Shishkin is a big name in modern Russian literature being the only person to have received all three of his country's prestigious prizes but if you fear Russian literature, please don't let this put you off. This isn't what you may think of when you imagine the genre. No heavily laden volumes like War and Peace, no doom-laden heroine like Anna Karenina. Instead it's an easy enjoyable read with more lurking under the surface for those who would like to submerge without the necessity to do so.
However, there is one tiny warning. If you need logic in your storyline, this may not be your novel. You have to accept unquestioningly that letters go back and forth across time and that these people have seemingly met before without knowing the mechanics. For those like me who believe, a gem awaits.
Volodenka writes to his love, describing the lead up to his posting interspersed with memories of his childhood, the tragic changes in his family and then the brutal reality of the warfare he's plunged into, making a bloody cut through his expression of love. In return, Sasha recounts happy family holidays and tries to cope with the awful Sonya as Sasha moves through the years in comparative safety. Both are very easy to love, adding to the book's charm.
Shishkin jumps back and forth between them showing us moments filled with colour, emotion, surprises and one or two shocks. (Experienced translator Andrew Bromfield deserves recognition for this too. The material he had to work was indeed high quality but his interpretation ensures the flow and readability come across with the words.)
The episodes the lovers relate are fascinating. The prose snapshots showing us historic detail is at just the right level; there to enthral rather than bore. From the almost innocence ignorance of the treatment for bad posture in children to the detail on the Chinese uniforms or the ironic death of Russian officer Vseslavinsky and all in between, there are no dull moments interlacing the beautiful words of affection and longing.
The novel's title hints at the depths I mentioned. Our two lovers may also be two sides of life. Sasha represents the light while Volodenka sees the dark, barbaric side of life. I'm not totally convinced as some of Sasha's experiences aren't that happy and, despite what he sees and endures, the soldier retains his sensitivity and a twinkle of humour glimmering through the exhaustion. Perhaps they're two sides of the same soul, reincarnated? It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this one.
No matter how we analyse it, I finished The Light and The Dark thinking it was good. Then, as the characters pervaded my thoughts for days afterwards I realised it's actually a lot better than just 'good'. It's also got one of the most satisfying endings I've read in a while… and guess what? Yes, I cried… again!
If you've enjoyed this and would like to read another lyrical book about the pain of love and life, we strongly suggest Ten Things I've Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler.
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