essay: Adventures in Readerland: Oh Alexander!

So, I currently have two part-time jobs, a heap of editing, a novel to publicise and another on the go, a house to run and my kids home for the summer holidays. And what am I doing? Rushing off to my Kindle at every available opportunity to spend time with them, that’s what.

With Alexander, the dashing Red Army officer, and his Tania, small, timid, only seventeen. With little brother Pasha, who’s been sent away to safety (I don’t fancy his chances), and big sister Dasha who likes to dance with the soldiers while Papa takes to the bottle, Hitler’s army masses along Russia’s long, southern, European border, and the Red Army huddles at the northern border with Finland.

Outwardly I live in Derbyshire but in my head I’m wandering the broad streets of Leningrad in the last long, lazy summer nights before deprivation, starvation and war burn my story into the annals of history.

My Kindle isn’t an e-book reader, you see. It’s a window, through which I can step into another world. (I’m not here to advertise Kindle, before you start wondering. A physical book does exactly the same job; it just doesn’t lend itself to my analogy in quite the same way.)

The book I’m reading is The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons. It’s one of those books that reminds me of the difference between a good actor and a bona fide star. Good actors are ten a penny and mostly forgettable because they lack star quality. Bona fide stars are exceedingly rare, and, generally speaking, no one cares whether or not they can act.

And so it is with The Bronze Horseman—it’s a bona fide star, and I’ll never forget this story. Is it spectacularly original? No. Is this the best account of the siege of Leningrad I’ve ever read? Probably not. Some of the descriptions of war are clunky and lacklustre. The politics is more or less black and white: Communists are bad, Nazis are worse, war is hell.

But the romance, the romance, the romance! The lush white nights, the lost world, the exquisite pain of first love!

In terms of the writing, there are some extremely fine passages, but there are also some real duds. The characters feel like people I’ve always known but sometimes they stumble into scenes of awful melodrama and employ ultra-modern expressions that have no place in either 1940’s Leningrad or the mouths of plausible human beings.

Notwithstanding these lapses, however, the writing is mostly invisible. As I read, the words disappear, like the code in the film The Matrix, and I see Tania walking, talking, brushing back her hair. I will Alexander to be there, waiting for her at the bus stop, night after night, while Germany bangs on Russia’s door. I know my history—I know what’s coming for Leningrad through the winter of 1941/1942—but all I can think about is Alex and Tania, touching shoulders, elbows, brushing hands, living in the eternal now, on the razor’s edge of romance.

That’s the thing about romance: it’s universal. Everyone has it or remembers it or longs for it. Intellectual readers can harrumph and turn up their noses all they like; romance is woven into the human condition. If it were otherwise, there’d be no human condition because there’d be no humans.

There’s a special kind of magic that happens when a story adds up to more than the sum of the words used to tell it. It’s a kind of alchemy. I’m a writer as well as a reader, and I can’t begin to tell you why The Bronze Horseman works the way it does. I could deconstruct it, take it apart, chapter by chapter, examine each sentence but, frankly, I’d be none the wiser. Magic is magic. It sings in passages like this:

First we will send the frontovik … into the streets with a gun. When he is dead, we will send me, with a tank, like the one you’ve been making for me. When I’m dead, all the barricades down, the weapons and tanks gone, they will send you with a rock.

It survives dire passages like this:

This wasn’t a way of getting over a passing crush on your older sister’s swain. This was the moon of Jupiter and the sun of Venus aligning in the sky over her head.

In the publishing world, this kind of magic runs riot over sales predictions, literary snobbery and prevailing attitudes. It defies analysis or any attempt to bottle ‘the formula’.

I note from other reviews that the hero of this book has legions of female fans. I’m not surprised; I’m one of them. I know he’s not real, that he was made up in someone’s head, but does that matter? No, not a bit. Because, in Alexander, Simons has distilled a certain kind of ideal man, the essence of manliness. Corny? Occasionally. Effective? Hell yes. My husband has seen me in similar dithers before and doesn’t mind a bit. In real life, through the detritus of everyday life, I see to the core of the man I love, and the romance of my marriage goes on; in a good story, through the detritus of letters and words and sentences, I see to the core of universal truths and patterns and archetypes and the romance of life goes on.

The Bronze Horseman is a good story.

As a writer, Paullina Simons appears to be doing very nicely, thank you; she doesn’t need me to discuss her book in public. But I’m not here to do anyone a favour or a disservice. I’m here to talk about books, any and all books, unrestricted by genre, publisher or form. I’m only interested in the stories that make my world go round, wherever and whoever they’ve come from.

When I’ve finished The Bronze Horseman (and maybe its sequels) I’ll be reading Dwight Okita’s The Prospect of My Arrival, which offers one of the most interesting premises I’ve come across in a while. I’ll tell you how I get on next time, but here’s my caveat: I don’t read passively. I never believed that thing where the author stays in control of their creation; as far as I’m concerned, once the creation is in my hands, it’s part of my story.

The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons is published by Harper Collins.

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