This book was a score found during a local library sale, so when I realized it was part of a trilogy, I was a little worried about not understanding the novel. I double-checked Goodreads, a great resource for that kind of information (Can it stand alone? Is it worth reading? Is it predictable at this point?), and was assured that yes, it could be read as a stand alone and that ratings show it to be worth it. Then, as I started reading, I realized that there are many, many Russian words that are super hard to pronounce, in addition to Montefiore’s British style of using single quotation marks for speech. So, I decided to save myself the struggle and see if I could find the audiobook- which I did.
The novel follows the story of Benya Golden, a man who found himself enrolled in a penal battalion in the Red Army Calvary. His mount, a mare named Silver Socks, taught him how to be a horseman, and they formed a close bond. She is the only one he trusts in the battalion.
“There is, he thought, no tonic for being a ruined man, like the love of a horse.”
As World War II rages on, Stalin has ordered the penal battalions to fight to their death, in that if they succeed, they will be redeemed when the war was over. Benya knows this is a suicide mission, that he and his fellow men will surely die against the Germans.
Over the course of ten days, the story unfolds that Benya’s battalion steps into combat with a squad of Italians fighting for Germany. Benya is shot, the rest of his battalion is either dead or dying, and the Italians continue to occupy the small village. An Italian widow named Fabiana finds Benya, helps him survive by nursing him back to health, and then aids in his escape. In the time they have known each other, they find compassion and love for one another, despite that they are considered enemies.
“Her bravery briefly overwhelmed him: she had lost her husband, and now has to cope with this. He though of her, the massacred Jews in the woods, the child on Kapto’s knee, his own hopelessness- and he wanted to cry.”
In an alternating storyline, Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, writes to a war correspondent writer named Shapiro, eventually falling for him despite her tender age of sixteen. As their letters traverse, they finally end up meeting face to face. As Stalin finds out about his daughter’s secret romance, Shapiro confides in Benya about her- and Benya eventually meets Svetlana and shares Shapiro’s true feelings about her.
Overall, I thought that Montefiore’s writing is beautifully complex and descriptive, though at times, this made the pace a little slow despite the constant action. I know that if I hadn’t listened to the novel, I would have struggled to see the writing that way. Then again, there were plenty of times where I had to reference the book to understand from which character’s POV I was experiencing, or what chapter I was on, so the audio could also be considered a little confusing.
However, because of the audio, I was able to stay absorbed in the novel. I love a good historical WWII fiction, especially when reading from a different aspect. I loved that there was romance in this novel, as well as the bond between a man and his horse, and how they contrasted with the ugliness, grit, and sadness of the war. I think if you are looking for an intimate historical fiction novel, Montefiore has created a very realistic and gripping choice.