The Vanishing Futurist

Written by Charlotte Hobson
Review by Janet Hancock

This debut novel covers ground familiar in historical fiction – the years before and after the 1917 Russian revolution – but comes at it from an unusual angle, focussing on the avant-garde inventor and physicist Nikita Slavkin.

The narrative is a memoir, narrated in the 1970s by 80-year-old Gertie, writing a confessional for her daughter. Undervalued and unhappy at home in Cornwall, Gertie travels to Moscow with a family friend in the spring of 1914 to work as a governess. She thrives with the chaotic, liberal-minded Kobelev family. Nikita Slavkin is their lodger, and she forms an attachment to him. After the Bolshevik revolution, the Kobelevs leave for the south. Gertie stays in Moscow to join a commune led by Slavkin in the Kobelevs’ house, where property, privacy and sex are banned in the name of equality. Jealousies and rivalries pull the commune apart, while Slavkin labours on eccentric projects; his aim is to build a capsule that will transport socialists into a parallel universe where they can become even better people. When he disappears he is first condemned by the authorities as a traitor, then lionised as the Vanishing Futurist who sacrificed himself for the communist ideal. Gertie has to decide how important that ideal is to her.

Because of the nature of the narrative – Gertie talking on paper to her daughter – this is very much a story being told, a recounting of something that has already happened. As such it lacks immediacy; some episodes, which must have been traumatic in the extreme to live through, are dealt with somewhat matter-of–factly. Nevertheless, the novel captures the tragedy and idealism of those years: misery, famine, corruption, coupled with the fleeting certainty that anything is possible.