By Andrew Miller. (Europa Editions, 336 pages, $18.)
“The Girl on the Train” and “Gone Girl,” wildly popular mysteries featuring unreliable narrators and plots fueled by betrayal, are pale tales next to this spooky, cerebral novel by British writer Andrew Miller about a strange young woman.
It opens with Maud, a scientist and sailor, falling 20 feet from the deck of a scaffolded boat. Is it this injury, or something genetic, or something chosen, that makes Maud such a taciturn, mysterious figure? Men fall all over her, but she barely reacts to them. She has no female friends, little to say to anyone and seemingly no opinions or desires. Tim, her lover and the father of her baby girl, is briefly enraptured by her, but he soon becomes disillusioned and embarks on an affair.
When a tragedy befalls their small family, the novel’s direction changes radically, and suddenly we are immersed in a labyrinthine literary mystery. Maud climbs on her old boat and sails west in a long odyssey that ends, or perhaps just begins, in a strange, remote colony of resilient children. The odder Maud gets, and the odder and wilder her story becomes, the more believable and poignant it becomes.
The prose that ferries her story is taut, crystalline, with not a wasted word. Toss aside the “Girl” mysteries — this one is more grown up, and far less forgettable.
Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for ‘Doctor Zhivago’
By Anna Pasternak. (Ecco, 310 pages, $27.99.)
Olga Ivinskaya, mistress of rock star Russian poet and “Doctor Zhivago” author Boris Pasternak, suffered mightily for love. With a “colourful and complex” past, Olga had been widowed twice by age 30, with a child by each husband. She was 34 when she met Boris in 1946 at Novy Mir (New World), the literary magazine where she was an editor. Still married to his second wife and 22 years Olga’s senior, he appreciated the “enchanting” blonde’s “tired beauty,” while she was drawn to the magnetic artist on whom she had harbored a schoolgirl’s crush. His novel, 20 years in the making, was a “long and heartfelt love letter” to Olga, who inspired the character of Lara, Zhivago’s lover.
In 1949, Olga was sent to the gulag for nearly four years, an attempt by Soviet authorities concerned by Boris’ subversive work to “strike right to” his heart. She became pregnant by Boris twice, and miscarried both times. He refused to leave his wife and marry Olga, and she was sent to the gulag again after his death. Her daughter, Irina, was imprisoned as well. The government worked to discredit Olga, and she died at age 83 in Moscow, the KGB still in possession of her love letters from Boris and “other precious papers.”
Anna Pasternak, Boris’ great-niece, draws upon published works by Olga and Irina, interviews with since-deceased family members and correspondence unearthed in a HarperCollins vault in Glasgow to tell the engrossing story of Olga and Boris and “Doctor Zhivago.” (Its publication involved Italian Communists, the CIA, the Vatican, worldwide acclaim and Soviet pressure on Boris to renounce the Nobel Prize.) Pasternak offers an insightful, exhaustively researched and highly recommended portrait of an artist and his muse, as well as a horrifying look behind the old Iron Curtain.