The story is told in chapters which alternate between the perspectives of two main characters: Aleksandr Bezetov, a world champion chess player turned political activist (who must be based in part on Garry Kasparov), and Irina Ellison, a 30-year-old English lecturer with Huntington’s disease and a passive interest in chess. I know, I know: sounds fairly dreary, but it’s not! More, poignant and sagacious, with artful yet casual wordsmithery and humor tinged with sadness.
The novel begins with a description of Aleksandr’s move to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) back in 1978 to hone his chess skills, and admittedly, it takes a chapter or so to get pulled into the story, though we get a glimpse of the main theme – and Aleksandr’s latent political leanings – right away:
He didn’t care for the billboards and didn’t believe in the slogans, but nobody else did, either. He regarded Communism as a kind of collective benign lie, like the universal agreement among human beings to rarely discuss the fact that everybody would one day die.
Here we have the basic themes – Russia’s stifled political landscape, the harsher realities of life we pretend to ignore in polite company. And once we meet Irina, with her fatalistic “practicality” dripping with sarcasm and her oh-cut-out-your-whining Harvard Square chess opponent Lars, the story picks right up. Irina admits her faults openly:
I liked the bitter cold the best; it narrowed the meandering, self-indulgent courses of my mind into a focused dissatisfaction with what was right in front of me. This, I’ll be the first to admit, was an improvement.
Irina’s chapters are told in the first person; she is the messier, more relatable character in the book. We get Aleksandr’s story in the third person, and he remains somewhat cold, calculating and distant (which makes sense, since he’s surrounded and defined by chess, cold Russian winters, and political conspiracies), though eventually shows more humanity by the end of the novel. They are both dealing with their own fallibility, meeting after Irina determines that her father’s letter to the chess player, asking him how to fail with dignity, has not been adequately addressed or answered.
I’m not doing this book justice, but suffice it to say, you should read it, unless dealing with issues of mortality and consequence makes you squeamish. I can’t wait to see what duBois comes up with next – it’s hard to believe this is her first novel. Also: it’s out in paperback next Tuesday, if that puts you over the edge!
*I read this book courtesy of NetGalley – and my local public library, after my digital ARC expired!