Fact or Fiction?
Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, set the standard for the epic and romantic depiction of Russia during the desperate and brutal times of the revolution. In that tradition are two recent books that explore this same theme of the strength of human character under the most adverse conditions. In Olga’s Story Stephanie Williams tells the tale of her formidable grandmother, Olga Yunter, while in The Russian Concubine Kate Furnivall breathes life into the wild fire that is her heroine, Lydia Ivanova.
Olga’s Story begins with its protagonist’s troubled early years in a remote stretch of southern Siberia in 1920. With follow her journey through childhood into adolescence and the simple joys and tragic events which form her character. By the time her story concludes, we have experienced Olga’s flight from the comfort of her family at the tender of age of 20, her struggle to adjust to life in the harsh, foreign land of China, and her subsequent escapes from her adopted homeland. Leaving her husband and home behind, she flees first Mao’s communists and then the invading Japanese.
Although this is a biography based on family records and recollections, the narrative is told in a romantic manner, with dates and events not sourced. Williams’ job was not made any easier by her grandmother’s enduring fear that her civil-war era exploits would catch up with her and she would be forced to return to Soviet Russia. Because of this, most of Olga’s diaries and other documentation were purposefully destroyed. The fact that the book resembles a novel is not necessarily a criticism as the biography has an honesty and beauty that defies the need for hard facts. The chapter entitled “The Whispering of Stars” includes an early childhood memory of Olga on her father’s shoulders, wrapped up against the fierce cold, as he encourages her to listen carefully to the snowflakes falling. So silent and so intense is the night that the dew is audible as it turns to ice, sparkling and whispering like fairies.
There are intimate moments in Olga’s Story that produce a warm glow in the reader, who feels as if he is listening in on an intimate history. Thus allowed into such a narrow circle of intimacy, the reader forgets to care whether this is fact or fiction.
The Russian Concubine is the fictional tale of Lydia and her mother, who escape from Russia in 1928. The novel begins with a shocking episode in the squalid conditions of the train that carries the fleeing Russians. When the train is intercepted by Bolsheviks, Lydia and her mother are saved, partly by the riches they have sewn into the hems of their dresses but also by Lydia’s mother’s haunting good looks. Unfortunately, they are separated forever from Lydia’s father.
The story traces Lydia’s development into an intelligent, lively, and resourceful young girl as she steals from na¿ve, English gentlemen and cons her mother’s French lover into buying her a much-wanted white rabbit. Her childish escapades are set against a backdrop of deprivation and inequality in the dangerous town of Junchow, China. However, as Lydia matures and meets her soulmate, Chang An Lo, we realize that her vodka-drinking mother conceals many secrets and that Lydia’s impulsive ways lead her and those around her into danger.
Furnivall presents a variety of delightful and despicable characters and writes in a captivating style. The Russian community that struggles to survive in this harsh and unwelcoming city consists of many wonderful personalities: the aloof countess and her son, the hard-faced yet kindhearted landlady, and the huge bearded man who first terrifies and then becomes the unlikely guardian of Lydia. The book is not groundbreaking and borders on the far-fetched in places, but it is a bittersweet story of survival, different kinds of love, isolation, and drugs.
In all, book weaves together a number of different narrative threads to produce an enchanting and moving tale. Furnivall leaves you wondering what happens next (a sequel perhaps?) and, perhaps more importantly, why the concubine in the title?
Olga’s Story by Stephanie Williams, Viking, 2005, 412 pp.
The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall, Sphere, 2007, 592 pp.