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The People's Act of Love by James Meek

All men have the keys to hell in their trousers

In the manner of epic 19th-century literature, with which it has also been compared, Meek's narrative (which has just been longlisted for the Man Booker prize) sweeps across time, just as it ranges over vast landscapes. But the geographical focus soon narrows, as escaped political prisoner Samarin reaches the frozen village of Yazyk, isolated even by Siberian standards. As the temporal window is similarly narrowed, we are introduced to a number of characters and, amid the overlapping perspectives of cunning narrative switches, we piece together the emerging storyline.

Yazyk is home to an extreme Christian sect of voluntary eunuchs. Their leader, Balashov, has forsaken his genitals, the "Keys to Hell", but not before fathering the town's only child, Alyosha. The other townsmen have followed suit, with the exception of a garrison of Czechoslovak Legion soldiers, who dream of returning to Prague but are stranded in Yazyk by the ending of the Great War. Having fought on the side of the defeated Whites, they are under threat of attack from the advancing Reds. Matula, the Czech commander, is an unhinged despot, who keeps the local shaman chained up in a kennel. On Samarin's arrival, the shaman dies: "There was a sound in his throat like an injured bird in fallen leaves."

If you believe that the epic Russian novel actually needs reinventing for the 21st century, there's no denying that James Meek has a good crack at it. For all his grand ambition, though, it's by the quality of his writing, never less than convincing and often extraordinarily vivid, that he deserves to be judged.

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