Wednesday, 25 June 2014

One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore

June 1945

Just moments after the shots, as Serafima looks at the bodies of her schoolfriends, a feathery whiteness is already frosting their blasted flesh.

This whole paragraph tries to be clever with its deployment of the weather opening cliche, but it isn't fooling me, as evidenced in the second sentence.

It is like a coating of snow, but it's midsummer and she realizes it's pollen.

This causes me to pause and reflect: Is this opening paragraph about introducing dead prologies or is that merely a cover to tell us about the weather, which I'm beginning to think is a deep-seeded inclination in the human psyche when it comes to storytelling. By the way, it's cloudy at the time of writing this review and this reviewer is feeling the effects of the listless weather on his mood. I wrench at my tie in a futile effort to wiggle out of the conflict that is today's life.

The rest of the first paragraph:

It is like a coating of snow, but it's midsummer and she realizes it's pollen. Seeds of poplar are floating, bouncing and somersaulting through the air in random manoeuvres like an invasion of tiny alien spaceships. Muscovites call this 'summer snow.' That humid evening, Serafima struggles to breathe, struggles to see.

Forget about the dead schoolfriends - it's humid! Is this the conflict we're really supposed to be caring about? After all, it's what we can relate to more than dead schoolfriends. If one goes with the emphatic emphasis writing guideline (and of course there is no law that states one must), whatever a sentence or paragraph ends with should be what is most important. However, more than fifty percent of the opening paragraph is dedicated to descriptive weather than to the dead prologies, characters killed off in a prologue to hook bloodthirsty readers, usually in a gruesome and cliched sensational way involving dismemberment and explosions.

However, it's the figurative language that makes me giggle. It's like something I've read in some grade 7 homework assignment: The pollen is like invading space aliens? Of course, we all know what invading space aliens look like, right? So this image should be an easy one to reconstruct. I imagine a scene from Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!

The rest of the first page reveals Serafima's dilemma. She must testify, and she wishes she'd seen less and knew less. This leads to the only interesting question that's raised, which might hook the reader. Who are these children and why kill them, as these aren't just any children who've died. The problem Serafima is confronted with is what to tell and what to hide. Get it wrong and you lose your head. Which means, I assume with such a POV switch, that Serafima will be safe, but, you, the reader will die. So you better hope she gets it right.

Yet Serafima has a stake even higher than life and death: She's eighteen and in love.

Oh, my god, the hell this character must endure! First the bodies of dead schoolfriends, then the humidity, then testifying and now this! The absurdity of the hyperbole is mindbogglingly kitsch: "Love is more important than life and death!" she screamed from the mountain top as tempest winds whipped around her long golden hair that had been plucked from the golden threads of God's Codpiece.

Chapter 1:

Several weeks earlier

The best school in Moscow, thought Andrei Kurbsky on his first day at School 801 on Ostozhenka, and , by some miraculous blessing, I've just made it here.

Okay, this guy Andrei is thinking some stuff here but because the thinking isn't in italics it sounds like the end of that sentence which just so happens to also be the whole first paragraph is a POV switch. It's not, but you can see how easy it is to misconstrue the meaning. Wars have been fought over more childish misunderstandings and interpretations.

First thing said:
Seeds of poplar are floating...through the air...
like an invasion of tiny alien spaceships.

"These aren't just any dead children."

Despite the poor writing that lacks clarity, the opening line does attract attention in the form of young bodies. The rest of the prologue reveals the setting of post WWII Soviet Russia (it's 1945), which will interest many others.

Verdict: Fail

Rudy Globird

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