Reviewed by Kate Gardner
In many ways this is a conventional take on historical fiction: old lady recounts her youth for her daughter to read after she dies. But the story she has to tell is far from conventional, and not one that I had read any version of before.
In early 1914 good English girl Gerty travels to Moscow to work as a governess for a rich intellectual Russian family, the Kobelevs. Through them she meets Nikita Slavkin, a physics student with grand ideas of inventions that will aid the Communist cause.
When in 1917 the Russian Revolution arrives, Slavkin takes advantage of the Kobelevs having to leave the country, by turning their house into a commune. Gerty and the Kobelevs’ son Pasha stay behind, and they invite various acquaintances to join them in a grand experiment in communal living. Gerty is quickly persuaded by the socialist and feminist aspects of Communism (simpler clothes, having a voice) and happily submits to its less appealing details (intrusion of privacy, control over her time). Even with the hindsight of reflection, the narrator does not dwell on the commune’s mistakes, but the clues are there to see.
Moscow is a city that insinuates itself cunningly into one’s affections. At first it fascinated and slightly repelled me, as some vast medieval fair might…The architecture, with its strange excrescences and decorations, struck me as a wild attempt at grandeur that understood nothing of the true properties of beauty.
Moscow is of course in turmoil around this initially cosy set-up. The World War had already created food and fuel shortages; the revolution exacerbates this, as well as bringing its own new problems. Various officials and police are ever-present, imposing increasingly strict rules. Slavkin’s rules are getting stricter too, but they’re not following quite the same trajectory as the new leaders of Russia.
We know from the outset of the novel that Slavkin disappeared in 1919, after which he became a poster boy for Communist Russia, the subject of many a book and film. The narrator does not say outright that she knows the truth about his disappearance, but the implication is that her story will reveal it. For me, that was the weakest strand of the story – partly because it tried to distract the reader with pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo. I would have appreciated a physicist character discussing some actual physics.
Gerty, however, is a great lens through which to explore this turbulent time. She’s an everywoman: smart but not super clever; modern but still restrained by social norms; generally good but far from perfect; easily led but ready to make decisions when the time comes. She allows readers who might be certain they would never have been taken in by a corrupt regime to see how easily it could happen.
This is Charlotte Hobson’s first novel, but she has previously written about her time spent in Russia as a student, and that familiarity with being a Brit in Moscow shows in The Vanishing Futurist. Gerty’s nationality vacillates between advantage and disadvantage but her decision to stay on in Moscow rather than going home to Cornwall is tied up in wanting to prove her parents wrong, in falling in love, in wanting to be part of something new and exciting. Ultimately she is a young person making bad decisions for honourable but flawed reasons – like every young person ever – but the setting makes her story different, interesting.
The truth is that the realities of our life in 1918 ground us between their hard edges in a way most people today would find unbearable: we were constantly hungry, we were cold, the country was in chaos. Despite it all, we set out on the hard, hard path of change. We were not daunted, we were tenacious.
Kate Gardner reviews books at www.noseinabook.co.uk
Charlotte Hobson, The Vanishing Futurist (Faber & Faber, 2016). 978-0571234868, 308pp., hardback.
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