Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Holeman captivates with Russian tale
WRITING strong female characters bound by their circumstances is a specialty of historical novelist Linda Holeman.
In 2005's The Moonlit Cage, the former Winnipegger told the story of Darya, a young Afghani woman who escapes first from the curse of her father's second wife, and then from her abusive husband.
Holeman's latest novel, The Lost Souls of Angelkov, reinforces her reputation. It is set in a similar time period -- 1861 -- but this time in Russia and centred around Antonina, a countess and landowner whose son is kidnapped shortly after the abolition of serfdom.
Where Darya's journey takes her across the desolate landscape of Afghanistan, into a bustling and colourful India, and finally to Industrial Revolution-era England, Antonina is trapped at the manor Angelkov, caring for her gravely ill husband who was injured during the kidnapping and waiting anxiously for news of her son.
Yet Holeman is able to flex her descriptive muscles and bring her readers outside the confines of Angelkov by switching seamlessly from Antonina's perspective to those of two servants: Grisha, the strong and capable steward; and Lilya, her devout maid and childhood friend.
Grisha's storyline takes readers on a trans-Siberian trek across snowy steppes and Asiatic landscapes; Lilya's is blunt in exposing the grimy and unforgiving life of a serf.
In addition to her historic novels, Holeman -- who now lives in Toronto and San Diego -- has published several collections of short stories for both adult and young adult audiences.
She writes the chapters set in the year of Antonina's son's kidnapping in the present tense, but also leaps back and forth into Antonina, Grisha and Lilya's pasts.
The change in tense is at first disconcerting, but the plot is quick to engage, thus erasing any misgivings. Along the way, Holeman unravels the mysteries of Antonina's crippling dependence on alcohol, Lilya's bizarre devotion to the countess, and Grisha's brooding and private demeanour.
The first pieces of their pasts to get revealed seem predictable, but halfway through the novel, readers will discover Holeman has been keeping her cards close to her chest, strategically deciding when to reveal certain facts.
Holeman's greatest skill may be in writing deeply flawed characters with whom one can still sympathize. Antonina's complexity is given an added layer as we find more about her wilful youth and the events that led to her becoming a meek, dutiful countess to her adulterous husband, 30 years her senior.
Despite Antonina's intriguing story arc, Grisha is the most compelling character. "He knows exactly who he is, and what he's done," Holeman writes. "He sees himself in a hard, unforgiving light. He's a man who will do what has to be done to further himself."
The son of a Decembrist revolutionary banished to eastern Siberia, Grisha left home many years earlier, hoping to make a better life for himself. In the process, he disobeyed his parents' wishes and abandoned his younger brother, changing his name from Timofey to cover his shameful past.
Unlike the many former serfs who work at Angelkov, he was always a free man: he is literate and he learned French -- a language normally reserved for the nobility -- from his father.
He is ambitious and always despised working for the count.
Readers learn from the beginning of Grisha's involvement in the kidnapping, though Antonina is kept in the dark even as her relationship with Grisha becomes increasingly intimate.
Lilya's involvement is a little more murky, as are her intentions. Even Grisha begins to have suspicions: "She has an odd smile on her face, something that gives him a jolt of understanding even deeper than the one from a moment ago. Something's not right with her. Surely she's ill in some way."
With The Moonlit Cage, Holeman proved she was an adept historian; now shows off her skill as a captivating storyteller.
Jennifer Ryan is a Winnipeg writer.
The Lost Souls of Angelkov
By Linda Holeman
Random House, 538 pages, $23
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 J9
(1 of 23 articles for today)