Shamim Sarif is known for her strong female characters and explorations of gender, class, and discrimination. She directed films of her novels I Can’t Think Straight, The World Unseen and Despite The Falling Snow. The latter was first published in 2010 and made into a film in 2015, with a new paperback edition by John Blake Publishing Ltd coming out this April 2016. It is set in Russia’s post-Stalin years, and the present day in Boston, USA.
The country has just buried Stalin, and Khrushchev’s thaw has begun. Against that background, Sarif places Katya – a young woman who lost her parents to Stalin’s repressions, and whose brother has managed to escape to the US. Katya has sworn to avenge the death of her parents, and when her friend Misha first recruits her and then asks her to spy on Alexander, she sees it as an opportunity to help destroy the communist regime. The only problem is, Katya’s heart has already fallen for Alexander, and no matter how much she tries, Katya is unable to keep her mission a secret from him. She convinces Alexander to run away with her to America, where they can start a new life. He agrees, and defects whilst on a trip to the US, but Katya doesn’t manage to get out. She is murdered by Misha, who has been caught and turned double agent.
Years later, Alexander is still consumed by guilt and cannot move on with his life. He is successful in the way he could not have been in Russia, he has become ‘the model of capitalism and free enterprise’ just like he was the model of communism in his youth. He would have been a government official all his life – here he has built an ethical and powerful company. But apart from his work and his niece Lauren, Alexander’s life is empty. When he meets Estelle, the mother of a potential buyer for his company, Alexander is forced to access memories he has tried to bury.
Sarif’s style is pared down, script-like, and would read a lot like a synopsis were it not for the author’s visual deftness. Katya’s glass of tea instead of a cup is a powerful detail that brings the imagery of the 1950s Russia into focus. But other details are under-researched and break up the flow of the narrative. There was no Christmas in the Soviet Union, for instance, and had there been, it would have been on 7 January in accordance with the Russian Orthodox calendar:
‘She smiles. “It wasn’t there. It was at the 6th district school. A joint production. We did it last month for Christmas. They did it now for New Year.”
The affectionate name that Katya is given – ‘Katyushka’ – is possible but unlikely, although it may sound pretty to the Western ear. ‘Katyusha’ would have been a more authentic choice. The narrator’s voice is all-seeing at times, then suddenly limited to one character’s perspective, an inconsistency which feels distracting.
In contrasting Alexander and Katya’s life with Estelle’s, Sarif invites an important question: does a privileged upbringing and a life in what looks like a free country compared to Stalin’s Russia mean more freedom and less limitations? Or do we set our own limits, and live within the confines of our own ideas of what’s possible?
Estelle has not had to overcome the kind of challenges that Katya and Alexander have encountered. She has lived a comfortable life, and yet she has allowed herself to be controlled by the limitations set by her own mind. Her life has been unfulfilling, and she still struggles to accept herself as a writer, or to follow her heart when it comes to her marriage and Alexander.
This contrast of Russia and the West, or of communist ideals and the principles of capitalism, form the central point in Sarif’s novel. Estelle’s daughter Melissa asks Alexander if he has ever believed in communism.
“How do you move from one extreme mind set to another so easily?’
‘It wasn’t easy. And yet it wasn’t hard either. The first belief – in communism – had been drummed into me from childhood. I knew nothing else, and was convinced, for a while anyway, that such a state was the fairest way for everyone to have something… Then I lived here, worked hard. Rose on my merits, as they say.’’
Alexander feels that by getting involved in charity work and philanthropy he is helping correct the failings of capitalism. It is supposed to be, like communism, about equal opportunity. But like communism, it has not succeeded.
Stalinism is something Russia is still trying to understand. It would be madness to argue that it never happened, or that life under Stalin did not have a sinister tinge. From our vantage point of the 21st century, we may wonder how these people, these mysterious Soviets, could live through the years of repression, of murders authorised and ordered by their own government, without a chance of making their own choices. But we must not forget that life has not been all that different in the West. It has had its own share of atrocities, and we all still live under the constant surveillance, whilst the appearance of the freedoms we enjoy is often just that. Still, underneath, normal, human life goes on, with its love and its sorrows, with shared gossip and smiles, with our mundane struggles and victories. Just as here in the West our lives are not all dark and terrible despite all the misery that can be going on around us, in the Soviet Russia people found joy and happiness in life itself. Sarif’s Russia is, as often happens in spy novels, the devil’s black hole of hell. This extreme contrasting of regimes takes away from the story, making it too reliant on existing clichés and therefore, less powerful.
The theme of strong women who overcome their circumstances to inspire others is a favourite of Sarif’s, and is present here in Katya who fascinates all three other female characters of the novel: Melissa, Estelle and Lauren. All three find empowerment as they find out more about Katya’s life. Sarif succeeds in creating a striking character who transcends not just the limitations of time, geography and her own life, but the author’s own limitations of writing about a time and a country she has not fully experienced.