Back In The USSR

Pavel Dubrov is a disgraced literature teacher in Stalinist Russia; his current job is working in the infamous Lubyanka prison, cataloguing literature that is doomed to be incinerated for being insufficiently pro-Soviet.

His wife has been killed in a train wreck, although he’s still waiting for authorities to find the remains. His best friend is about to be fired from his teaching job (or worse); his mother is slipping into what we’d recognize now as Alzheimer’s.

It all sounds pretty gloomy, but then again we are talking about Stalinist Russia.

Travis Holland’s debut novel isn’t as depressing as its plot makes it seem, and in fact the plot is not what drives this book. Instead it’s Holland’s ability to bring to life what it was like to live in the USSR as Stalin and Hitler were in the midst of their tortured mutual history.

Dubrov, feeling guilty because he had conspired to denounce a colleague years before, still has a spark of the individual: when a favorite author’s manuscript is targeted, he steals it away and hides it in the cellar of his home.

He tries to keep alive that spark as the deadening Soviet bureaucracy – and the ever-present fear of being arrested – work against the chance of him feeling human again.

There’s no pulse-pounding page-turning going on here; instead there’s a real sense of an everyday man fighting against forces bigger than him as he tries simply to live a normal life. -- Richard Connelly

The Archivist’s Story, Dial Press, $23

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