By Simon Montefiore
Bantam Press, £12.99
Simon Sebag Montefiore has achieved international success with his accessible and engaging historical biographies, Catherine the Great and Potemkin; Stalin: The Court of the Red Star; and Young Stalin. In what must be a rare triumph for a historian, he has even sold the film rights to Young Stalin — to Miramax.
Montefiore has undeniably carved out a comfortable and lucrative niche for himself. Any biography to which he turns his hand is likely to win the two holy grails of publishing: significant sales and critical acclaim.
But now, without the Sebag, plain Simon Montefiore has ventured into the more treacherous territory of commercial fiction with Sashenka — no small risk for a non-fiction writer who has worked hard over the years to earn a serious, intellectual reputation. As it turns out, the risk has paid off.
It is 1916 in St Petersburg. Sashenka, teenage daughter of the nouveau riche Zeitlin family, is concealing a dark secret from her schoolfriends.
While the governess shops for imported English biscuits and her mother parties with Rasputin, Sashenka identifies more with exiled uncle Mendel — an affiliation that lands her in rather hot water.
Twenty years later, she is married with two adored children, socialising with Stalin, when an illicit love affair threatens everything she holds dear.
Beginning with the beautiful and wilful Sashenka, Montefiore’s novel follows three generations of women in the same family, from the early years of the last century into the present-day world of the Russian oligarchs.
It all makes for a genuine page-turner, refreshingly free of that clunky kind of research that plagues so many historical novels.
Montefiore has immersed himself in all things Russian for so long that the background and atmosphere flow naturally, and are utterly convincing. Ten years immersed in the archives have paid off — several true stories have been woven into the narrative to produce a compelling love story.