Midnight in St. Petersburg by Vanora Bennett

At university I signed up for a course called Demonic Literature, and started doing some of the reading in the summer holidays. When term began, we were told the course had been cancelled – cue mass anger from English Lit students (i.e. ineffectual grumbling). I had already read and annotated over half of Dostoyevsky’s Demons for the course and loved it – but I was so annoyed and disappointed at the course being cancelled, and had so much new reading to do that I gave up on Demons and read other stuff. Boo. But my interest in the history of Russia remained, and I have kept an eye out for a book to pique that interest.

Enter Midnight in St. Petersburg.

2013 trade paperback cover. Image: randomhouse.co.uk
2013 trade paperback cover. Image: randomhouse.co.uk

This is a totally different book to Demons, don’t get me wrong. This is not crazy complicated and intense 19th century Russian literature, and there are no demonic metaphors, but it does share the themes of revolution and public disillusionment with both the ruling classes and government. While the ordinary people hate the government and the Emperor, there are also tensions within the communities of revolutionaries, with different groups insisting on their ideas being right and craving power for themselves.

But let’s go back to the beginning. Inna, a Jewish orphan, “has fled the pogroms of the south to take refuge with distant relatives” in St. Petersburg, travelling on a stolen passport (quote from the blurb). She meets a peasant priest on the train, and he guides her to her new address, promising to help her if she ever needs papers. She reaches her new home and the door is opened by the cousin she has never met, Yasha, who has no idea who she is or why she is on his doorstep. He lives with the Leman family, violin makers and kind people that accept Inna and employ her in their workshop, training her to craft violins.

Anxious about being found with false papers, Inna goes to visit the priest she met on the train, Father Grigory. At his house she meets a group of his devout followers, as well as a few curious observers – who include Prince Felix Youssoupoff (also spelt as Yusupov) and his English friend Horace Wallick, an artist at Faberge. Horace takes a shine to Inna and soon comes to visit her at the Lemans’, and they become friends. Meanwhile an attraction has been brewing between Inna and the young revolutionary Yasha; and Horace’s feelings for Inna grow every time he sees her. As the First World War approaches and Inna’s position becomes increasingly precarious, she must choose between Yasha and Horace.

Midnight in St. Petersburg is a very rich, intelligent text with great depth. The sheer length of the book – which I thought was a little excessive – is filled mostly with the political side of the story, as St. Petersburg becomes increasingly dangerous for Inna, Yasha, and Horace. Specific details of the political unrest are not really examined beyond the fact that the people have little money and are fed up with the government and the Tsar. Yasha disappears into the night to meet with fellow revolutionaries, and he gets himself into trouble when he takes too many risks; Inna tries to find solace in Father Grigory but quickly loses faith as his reputation changes and the country comes to know him as Rasputin; and as Russia unravels a classic love triangle develops.

So you sort of get a blend of revolutionary/political thriller and classic love story tropes with this novel. Bennett’s writing flows and engages, and is beautiful without detracting from the action. At times I found the pace a little slow, and as mentioned I think the novel as a whole was longer than it really needed to be, and I think the conclusion was a bit drawn out. The political undercurrent creates  a feeling of tension throughout the book, and as in Demons causes both the reader and the characters to question not only who they can really trust but also what it means to be free. Late in the novel Yasha talks with Inna about the futile nature of revolution – once one leader is out, another always comes in and the people are “slaves” again. But there are no grand political allusions here – this is more a simple story of disillusioned people trying to find a place for themselves in the world.

Author Vanora Bennett lived in Russia for some years, and on her return to England discovered that her great-grandmother’s brother had worked for Faberge and lived in St. Petersburg in the early 20th century, leaving as war broke out to return to the safety of home. This man was Horace Wallick, and he was the inspiration for Midnight in St. Petersburg. Bennett states in her Afterword that she loved her new connection to Russia and the city she loved, and wanted to explore her great-great-uncle’s life and consider what his time in Russia could have been like. Of course the novel is entirely fictional, but its grounding in reality (of both Horace and the political upheavals) gives it extra depth.

As the novel progresses the story still moves around the unstable nature of St. Petersburg and the need for safety, but the drive within the narrative comes from Inna’s complicated feelings for both Yasha and Horace. Her search for happiness is the real story here, with quests for safety and love being part of a larger whole. I also rather enjoyed the side notes about the individual members of the Leman family, particularly Mrs Leman, and how their story (/stories) play (s) out alongside Inna’s. While she is ‘exotic’ they are ‘everyday’, just trying to get on with their lives and run their business; they think about home and family, while she thinks about great love and her own emotional life.

I really enjoyed Midnight in St. Petersburg, but I didn’t quite love it. I found it overly long and the ending not quite in tune with the rest of the story; but I loved the characters and the sense of place, as well as the interplay of sociopolitical struggle and the intense emotions of the love triangle. Bennett has written previous historical novels as well as non-fiction books, which I might explore when I’ve worked through my current (huge) TBR. Anyone who loves historical fiction would definitely enjoy Midnight in St. Petersburg.

*

Published in April 2013 by Century, an imprint of Random House UK. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Vanora has written a great blog post here about her long lost relative, Horace Wallick.

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