By Shereen Siewert Ask anyone who knows me: if I had to eat one thing and
Julie Lekstrom Himes’s confident, carefully crafted debut novel begins in 1933 Moscow with poet Osip Mandelstam and satirist Mikhail Bulgakov sharing a quiet moment at a restaurant. Later that night, Mandelstam is arrested because of his unpublished poem about Stalin. The Writers’ Union selects Bulgakov to draft a letter pleading for the poet’s release. Bulgakov witnesses the determined efforts of Mandelstam’s wife to save her husband and his work. He also becomes better acquainted with Mandelstam’s mistress, Margarita, who eventually becomes Bulgakov’s mistress and inspiration for his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. While the Mandelstams are sent into exile, Margarita is condemned to a prison camp. Bulgakov follows her to Siberia, as does the government agent who loves her. The story blends political and literary history with fiction, alternating among moments of gritty realism, deep emotion, irony, and insight. Himes evokes a world of geniuses and hacks, dangerous men and endangered men, muses and martyrs. She adeptly details brutality and betrayal as well as creativity and the uncertainties of censorship: one moment the not-so-secret police trash Bulgakov’s apartment, the next Stalin insists a commissar give Bulgakov his jacket. This novel offers two profiles in courage: a satirist struggling under a dictator who has no use for satire, and the woman Himes imagines inspired the iconic novel about the survival of love and literature under bureaucratic tyranny.
Julie Lekstrom Himes. Europa (Penguin, dist.), $18 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-60945-375-6
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