The intrigue and danger that surround the author's mother's relationship with his father, a Welsh-born student of Russian, in this book, are almost overshadowed by the earlier story of her childhood in Stalinist Russia. Any romance inevitably comes second to the tale of the young Lyudmila and her sister, Lenina, "orphaned" when their father, a rising star in Stalin's government, was whisked off by the authorities and forced to confess to crimes he hadn't committed against the Party.
The horrifying world of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is evoked by the trumped-up charges; the authorities' lies to the author's grandmother, Martha, about when her husband would be released (he was shot, but his family wouldn't find that out for years); the men arriving in black in cars in the middle of the night; the subsequent sudden removal of Martha (taken to serve a 10-year sentence in Siberia) and the depositing of the girls in an orphanage. No recourse to appeal; no voice raised to defend them: the acceptance of tyranny is almost as terrifying as the tyranny itself.
Owen Matthews's search through the appalling bureaucratic nightmare all these decades later for what really happened to his grandfather is heroic, but he isn't blinded by family loyalty to the starvation and murder of peasants in the build-up to the infamous "purges", that his grandfather at best ignored or, at worst, actually endorsed before his arrest.
A great deal of family heartache is faced here, a microcosm of what was happening in the country at large. But Stalin's death was Matthews' mother's chance – she won a place at Moscow University and met his father, a quiet, bookish man from the valleys with a love of all things Russian. Their struggle to be together is another relic of the Soviet age, less terrifying to read about but no less compulsive.