A Flame Out at Sea
This is a novel about the Russian North, the land of the Pomors, a landscape of lakes and forests, bears and fish, where the protagonist Grisha spent much of his childhood with his grandfather and to which he is now drawn in a quest for meaning and belonging. It’s a non-linear narrative, moving between different eras, from the ancient monasteries and hermits to the Soviet camps to the present day, exploring the impact of religion, Communism, Stalinism and the new post-Soviet world. Grisha remembers the grandfather who taught him so much about how to survive in such a harsh land, but he had a secret which only gradually comes to light and brings into question everything Grisha remembers about him. At the centre of the novel is a crime which casts a long shadow.
It is an atmospheric and compelling novel with vivid descriptions of the environment and the life of the local inhabitants, dependent as they are on nature, which can be as unforgiving as it is bountiful. A single individual is insignificant against such a backdrop, and yet each individual is significant to themselves. The suffering of those who found themselves here is explored with insight and empathy. The episodic and fractured narrative accentuates their fractured lives. The peaceful, isolated life on the lakes and in the forests is in stark contrast to the cruelty to which the Russian North has so often been witness. The book is slow, measured and contemplative, and I found reading it an immersive experience. Some knowledge of the history of the region helps, but the essential motif of a man searching for connection is universal.