Written by Ronan Bennett
Review by Nicole Leclerc

Zugzwang: a position in chess in which a player is obliged to move, though every move makes his position worse, resulting in helplessness. This applies perfectly to the political situation in 1914 St. Petersburg. Pulled apart on the brink of World War I between the pro-Germans and the pro-French, it is also divided internally between Tsarists and Bolsheviks, Jews and “proper” Russians.

Difficult, then, for a high profile Jewish psychoanalyst to remain neutral when his calling card is found on the unidentified body of a murdered man. When he is arrested along with his daughter, he must find out the truth behind these events to save their lives, not a safe endeavour in this period of bombings, acid throwing, conspiracies and betrayals. Who can he trust among his colorful and secretive friends, his patients, and the various police and political factions, all playing him to their advantage?

This is a lively, albeit gloomy story realistically set in turbulent yet interesting times. Russia is in “zugzwang,” but so are the lives of the well-defined characters. Readers will be captivated by this complex private and social story of deceit. Chess lovers have a bonus treat in the unfolding of a game, but the plot flows easily for those without knowledge of chess.