Self Help, By Edward Docx
Sunday 18 May 2008
When the aged mother of Anglo-Russian twins Gabriel and Isabella dies in St Petersburg, they have no idea of the family secrets that are about to spring to life. Such as the truth about their own parents' relationship, and such as the existence of an unacknowledged half-brother, Arkady, a brilliant pianist who can't afford to finish his training at the Conservatory.
This dense, 520-page novel brings to life a rich cast of interrelated characters, including Arkady's mentor, the failed priest and drug addict Henry Wheyland; the terrifying gangster Grisha; the twins' erotomaniac and fearsomely erudite father; and looming over all, the powerful figure of their mother, the deceased Maria. Docx switches between settings and time-frames with the serene, godlike power of a Victorian novelist. London, New York and Paris are all set before the reader with cinematic vividness – but it is St Petersburg that is the beating heart of the book, with its crumbling apartment blocks, Winter Palace, drug addicts, musicians and mafiya.
The early and middle sections of the book demand to be read slowly, as the complications accrete. But Docx has some wonderful setpieces, such as the seven-page description of a jazz gig in a St Petersburg bar. He is an expert at knowing when to end a chapter – the moment the emotional payload has been delivered, not a moment later. He's a virtuoso phrasemaker, with such arresting sentences as "The vodka was working its magic on their wilful blood"; he can also rise to comic heights, such as his characterisation of magazine articles "so badly written they would have blushed to serve as toilet paper during the siege of Leningrad". As Wodehouse said of Shakespeare, Docx can certainly crack the ball through the covers when his eye is in.
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