Red Hands opens like a thriller, and keeps up the tension, even as the narrative voice of Iordana Borila describes a golden, happy childhood in 1960s communist Romania. Things begin to lose their sheen when she meets Valentin Ceausescu, son of her father’s political rival. Their marriage – opposed by both sets of parents – launches Iordana on a trajectory described as “if Juliet did not die”.
Sargent’s work reads like memoir, written in Iordana’s voice. But Sargent’s skilled writing provides vivid images, lively character studies, a portrait of a brutal, controlling regime, insights into the nature of love, friendship and courage, and tension maintained at such a pitch, that it was almost a relief when the blood eventually began to spill. In an era of books geared to gendered markets, there’s more than enough of both romance and political intrigue to satisfy both groups.
The cover blurb claims that the book is drawn from 800 hours of unique interviews with Iordana, a real person, who died in 2017. So why is Sargent’s book billed as a novel, and not a ghostwritten autobiography? In an interview with his publisher, Sargent explains “Novels are the highest form of truth”.
That’s as may be. But in an era of “fake news”, I’d have been grateful for an author’s note to clarify these points. Without it, I am left wondering whether the 1980s are too close for “historical” fiction. Nevertheless, a great read.