In some ways Gillian Slovo's Ice road has much in common with another recent read, London belongs to me. Both are novels about cities with a weight of history entering and surviving a war. Slovo's novel also has much in common with the great Russian novels Dr. Zhivago, War and peace and Life and fate. All three have in common that most Russian of preoccupations, the family unit placed against the backdrop of momentous historical events.
Slovo's novel opens in Leningrad in 1934. It follows the lives of the family of Boris Aleksandrovich, an apparatchik, working in the city council, and the cleaner, Irina Davydovna, who has a life-changing experience when she is stranded in the Arctic Circle. Boris' family are believers in the Soviet system but their beliefs are threatened as the Stalinist purges of the 1930s take hold of their city, and then war is declared...
This is a superb novel, quite rightly nominated for the Orange prize. It reads brilliantly, and easily; and masterfully tells of a very dark period in the history of that most beautiful of cities, Leningrad. It's interesting to compare it to Helen Dunmore's The siege, another novel of the siege of Leningrad. The Dunmore novel was, I think, better. And I think this was because it focused on such a narrow period that it was really able to bring out every detail. Where Slovo scores is that the novel gives a wonderful broad sweep of Soviet history - this is the human face of Orwell's Animal Farm. But the broad brushwork is not without its problems.
Anyone who is a fan of Russian literature knows that the novels can often be extraordinarily long. And after reading Ice road, which I loved, I finally understood why this is so. Ice road is no short read weighing in at nearly 550 pages long, but this is as nothing compared to War and peace or Life and fate. They are the length they are for a very simple reason. The problem with using great historical events is that they can completely overwhelm your fictional characters unless a real effort (and many pages) are expended in building them up. And it is here that Slovo's novel is lacking. There are some great characters - Davydovna and her adopted daughter, Anya, are brilliantly portrayed - but generally there is little depth. And some of the character sketching is very meagre, Boris' mistress Tanya, for instance, is a cardboard cut-out with little life of her own.
It's a shame as in many ways this novel comes the nearest to being a great Russian novel without being Russian. But as far as characterisation is concerned there is something lacking at its heart. Having said which as an historical novel I thoroughly enjoyed it. And as someone who's hoping to go to St. Petersburg within the next few years it was a fascinating glimpse into the life of that troubled but indomitable city.