BOOK REVIEW / History in the making? That's her story: 'Russian Salad' - Julia Watson: Bantam Books, 5.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
ONCE upon a time, in that strange twilight period when the dark world of Kremlinology, Pravda and KGB spies was being dispersed by perestroika and glasnost, a bright young British newspaper correspondent, George Mason, found himself posted to Moscow with his winsome wife, Alice, and small daughter, Daisy. Thus the opening of Julia Watson's first novel. More than 200 pages of scene- setting - daily life as lived by the wife of a British correspondent in Moscow - are followed by fewer than 100 of a plot so slight you could almost miss it.

I will forbear to divulge even the bare outline of this 'plot' - readers expecting something to happen are likely to be disappointed enough as it is, without my spilling the few beans there are. For the merits of this book lie elsewhere: in the atmospherics it creates of daily life for Moscow's foreigners in the mid- to late Eighties: the housemaids who might or might not be working for the KGB, the expatriates who, for complicated reasons, settled in so hostile a foreign capital, the idiosyncrasies of friendly and unfriendly natives, the petty defiances that brightened up an otherwise dour and regulated existence; frozen cars in winter, picnic parties in summer. Here is the genuine scent of foreigners' lives in Moscow as they used to be.

Anyone who chanced on this peculiar existence will not fail to recognise it in Julia Watson's account. Those more deeply involved may allow themselves a little gentle nostalgia for the time, rapidly vanishing, when Moscow was unlike anywhere else.

As someone in the second category, I do wonder whether this foreigners' Moscow so familiar to me - high-rise compounds, cockroaches, foul-smelling hallways, treacherous lifts and KGB traps - would be quite as entertaining for those readers who have never set foot in the place. Scene-setting counts for much, but it cannot compensate for the lack of a story.

Indeed, one of the biggest difficulties with this book is to accept it as a novel at all. The difficulties become all the greater when you learn from the jacket that the author is the wife of the Guardian correspondent Martin Walker; that she and their small daughters accompanied him on his tour of duty there and, we may infer, lived just such a life as her heroine. Are we not reading a fictionalised autobiography rather than experience distilled into a novel? The border between the two may be slim, but I think I know when it has not been crossed.

Watson has done nothing like enough distilling for my taste - by quite a long way. And my misgivings are only increased when I learn that a second 'novel' is on its way. The patronisingly named Russian Salad is to be followed by . . . American Pie. This will be about life in the US, coincidentally Walker's next - and current - posting.

For one particular passage, though, where the correspondents bitch about their editors back in London, I can forgive Watson a whole heap of absent plot. 'Foreign editor asked me to give Philby a bell,' complains one of George Mason's colleagues. 'See if I couldn't stand up some wind that the Home Secretary is the Fourth Man . . . They haven't a bloody clue, have they? How am I expected to find Philby's phone number when there isn't even a bloody telephone directory for God's sake . . . I ask you, what kind of superpower is it, anyway, that doesn't even run to a lousy phone book?'

To which his tabloid colleague responds: 'I don't know why you take it so hard. My own esteemed editor wanted a profile last week on the Soviet media's top gossip columnist. With photograph. Do we love it or do we love it?'

The trouble is, the joke is now on the correspondents. In post-Soviet Russia, both projects will soon be as feasible as they are anywhere else in the world.

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