Red Heaven

Written by Nicolas Rothwell
Review by Georgia Rose Phillips

Winner of the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for his novel Quicksilver, Nicolas Rothwell’s Red Heaven is a nostalgic meditation on the legacy of relationships while growing up. The story begins in Switzerland in the late 1960s and focuses on the male adolescent narrator’s relationship with his two bold, charismatic aunts. Both these well-drawn characters take him under their wing as a protégé and educate him on their ideas and values, which alter his path to adulthood. Aunt Serghiana Ismailovna, an esteemed filmmaker, is the clever, glamorous, and supremely cultured daughter of a Soviet general. Aunt Ady Palafy is a disenchanted actress and singer married to the Viennese composer, Novogrodsky. Both aunts exist in a state of exile and treat the boy as an inheritor of their values, culture, and learnings from their pasts.

Full of literary parallels, symbols and ideas rather than dramatic movement, Red Heaven stretches the boundaries of fiction. The legacy of art history is present along with a clear meditation of the relationship between western and eastern European culture in this dialogue-heavy book. Geopolitical happenings unfold on the periphery, with the Prague Spring of 1968 altering the course of life at the glamorous Alpine Grand Hotel. The setting adds to the rarefied feeling of the story’s world. This is further heightened by the host of characters who entertain highly nuanced discussions about art, philosophy, and truth. At stages, this makes the book feel less like a work of fiction and more like an avant-garde approach to criticism. However, it is difficult to not be impressed by Rothwell’s rich understanding and appreciation of art history and philosophy that traverses from Tarkovsky films, to Rousseau’s Confessions, to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and more. I enjoyed Rothwell’s attention to the history of ideas and admired the rich character development.