REVIEW: THE RUSSIAN TAPESTRY BY BANAFESHEH SEROV

THE RUSSIAN TAPESTRY

Author: Banafsheh Serov
Hachette Australia RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Cover of The Russian Tapestry by Banafsheh SerovAuthor Banafsheh Serov self-deprecatingly describes The Russian Tapestry as “a good yarn”. She’s right – it is a good yarn, but Serov’s words downplay just how good a yarn it is. Inspired by her husband’s grandparent’s love story, The Russian Tapestry is a beautifully woven tale of history, hardship, love and loyalty. The historical aspect – it’s set in Russia and Estonia during WWI – highlights the adversity faced by two people in their quest for survival and love.

The story begins in St Petersburg, 1913 and spans about six-years. The Kulbas family has returned to St Petersburg, later re-dubbed Petrograd, for their annual visit; it’s the first time young Marie Kulbas, has been allowed to join her parents and she’s understandably excited. However, despite her excitement about the ballet, galas, balls and masquerades ahead, Marie, the daughter of a Russian merchant, has plans to study law. It’s an unusual choice for a young woman, as Pyotr, the young man who catches Marie’s eye, observes. Their friendship soon grows into something more, but with Europe in turmoil it’s not long before the war reaches its grip into Marie’s life, snatching away those dearest to her. Marie’s brother, Nikolai enlists as soon as war starts; Pyotr follows soon after, declaring his intention to marry Marie when the war is over.

Colonel Alexei Serov comes from a long line of professional soldiers. Leading his men is his birthright and his duty; his allegiance to Russia surpasses everything, including his obligations to his wife and family. His faithfulness to his country does not extend to his wife. When he is injured, he is taken to a hospital in Petrograd – the same place where Marie is now volunteering as a nurse. Her duty to her country is also clear – she cannot simply study and pretend war is not near, when her brother and fiance are fighting on the German front. It’s here that Marie and Alexei meet for the first time.

He found himself longing to learn her name and was impatient to be rid of the thermometer.

Marie’s passion and confidence lingers in Alexei’s memory; Marie, in turn, is intrigued by Alexei. While Alexei, perturbed but excited by the new emotions welling in him, is keen to pursue Marie, she is clear that there will be no relationship other than friendship – she is tied to Pyotr. It’s a dance that plays out over several years, as Marie deals with the fact that Pyotr is among many men missing, never found, Alexei returns to the front and ends his marriage, and both lose people that mean much to them. With the world crumbling around them, and the city they love becoming the focus of revolution, all they have to cling to is each other. Will they find a path to safety together? Or will their story simply be a thread in a new historical tapestry?

I don’t really know a great deal about Russian history, but I’ve always been drawn to books that examine the lives and hardships of people during wartime. These challenges are not something I ever have faced, nor am I likely to. The Russian setting intrigued me and I found the perspective fascinating. It took a few chapters to become fully absorbed in the book and then, all a sudden, I was engrossed, caught up in the lives of not only Marie and Alexei, but the interesting and well-drawn secondary characters. Some reviewers have said that the love story was overshadowed by the historical events, and with a 2013 perspective that’s true, but when you think about it, that’s probably exactly what it was like in that time. A hundred years ago, lovers were lucky to survive.

From the blurb The Russian Tapestry does sound like a romance, but I would describe this as historical fiction with romantic elements. The story moves from cities to forests, from war fronts to hospitals, from gala events to revolutionary meetings; with so much going on (again, it’s realistic for the time), it did take a while to emotionally connect with Marie or Alexei’s story. As their story took a back seat to other events, other characters grabbed at my emotions more – those of Ivanov and Marina, and of Pyotr (Oh, Pyotr, poor Pyotr), Katya and Feodor. These secondary characters were beautifully developed and all the threads of their stories beautifully tied into the larger tapestry. I’d really like to see further development of Marie and Alexei’s characters, perhaps in a sequel that examines their new life in Australia.

A fascinating read, The Russian Tapestry will appeal to those who love historical sagas that weave love and adversity together like Dr Zhivago. It’s beautifully-written, carefully researched and delivers a most satisfying read. Add it to your list!

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Hachette Australia.

Bookish treat: A tipple of kirsch (cherry brandy) would be a perfect accompaniment … well, I think so.