Book Review: The Lost Souls of Angelkov
As an avid reader of historical fiction, I was happy to get my hands on an area of history I’m not all that familiar with, Victorian Russia. I’ve been reading a biography of Catherine the Great, but that takes place about 200 years before The Lost Souls of Angelkov, which is a magnificent portrait of social change in Russia brought on by Tsar Alexander II in the 1860s. With a sort of “Upstairs, Downstairs” theme, author Linda Holeman explores the attitudes towards Russia’s use of serfdom, and the dramatic ramifications for all classes Tsar Alexander’s emancipation of the serfs brought to Russian society.
The emancipation of the serfs happened on March 3, 1861, and our story starts in April of that year, just at month later. The novel opens with the abduction of young Mikhail Konstantinov, fondly known by the diminutive Misha, the son of a wealthy aristocrat named Konstantin, lord of Angelkov. While riding out in the woods one cold spring morning, Misha and Konstantin, and Angelkov’s steward, Grisha are set upon by a group of three men. In a brief skirmish, the boy is taken off by the three men, who are disguised as Cossacks, and Konstantin suffers a serious wound to his hand. Misha’s mother and heroine of our story, the beautiful, unhappy, alcoholic Antonina descends into her addiction and acquires another (laudanum) but never loses hope that she will see Misha again. Supported by her long-time friend and personal servant – and loyal serf – Lilya, Antonina grieves, nearly loses it completely, but is always devoutly committed to finding her son. As Konstantin’s hand festers, eventually requiring an amputation, Grisha, who is not a serf but a free man and well-educated, stolidly runs the estate, which is haemorrhaging serfs due to the emancipation.
But about half the book is told in long flashback sequences, where we learn the mysterious past of Grisha, who in the present tense is quite reserved about talking about anything other than business, even though it’s quite obvious he has a story behind him. We also, through Lilya, learn the drastically horrid lives and conditions of the serfs of Russia – their poverty, how they’re treated by their lords, their living conditions, and their place in the social hierarchy. This for me was the most fascinating part of the book just because it was so well-detailed and disturbing. Russia was one of the last European countries to abolish serfdom, and the lives the bulk of serfs had was just as bad as American slavery.
Also through flashbacks, we see the upper class side of things through Antonina, who at a young age was a lover of literature and a virtuoso piano player. Born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, her teenage friendship with one of her father’s serfs, the aforementioned Lilya, opens her eyes as to how the people – or as they’re known, “souls” – her father and others of his ilk own live and are treated. With a mind of her own, which she is punished for speaking, Antonina comes to hate serfdom and all her class stand for, yet she is trapped because of the class system. Against her will, she is married off by her father and promiscuous, emotionally unavailable mother to the much older Konstantin, who only wants her because he is desperate for a son and heir.
The Lost Souls of Angelkov is a complex story weaving together so many themes and a lot of characters, all of which are memorable and so well-developed. Lilya’s character is quite disturbing, above and beyond reading about her distressing life. Grisha becomes a favourite early, and I really loved how the structure of the novel helped reveal his secret slowly, so that when we finally learn it it’s very powerful to discover. That combined with the fact that the charming, romantic, but manipulative Valentin, who wants to get what he can from Antonina to make his own life comfortable, turns out to be someone very significant from Grisha’s past. The ensuing tragedy is a real tear-jerker.
The present parts of the novel are written in the present tense, something I also liked because it really set apart those sections from the flashbacks, making for seamless transitions between past and present (some authors are not good at this at all, surprisingly enough), and it made for a more urgent tone to the story.
I could barely put this book down. It was a fantastic mixture of mystery, intrigue, politics and social issues, masterful characterization, and brilliant strory-telling. The end was both uplifting and devastating and ironic. It was bittersweet, and even though I was hoping for a bit of a Hollywood ending with this one, I was glad I didn’t get it. The ending is perfect as it is – and left me hoping for a sequel!
Definitely a recommend from me. This is one fabulous read in which all the things you love about historical fiction are present: romance, hidden pasts, evil plots, and a great rendering of the era are present. If you love this genre, you will love the book, guaranteed.