Sunday Review: Stalin’s Door by John St. Clair

Stalin’s Door by John St. Clair is the story of a family nearly destroyed by Stalin’s Great Terror, the purge by which the dictator imprisoned or executed not only his enemies but also anyone who, in his growing paranoia, he thought might become enemies. Zhenya, the daughter of the family, is the single thread running through the tale. Her father was a rising official awarded an apartment in the House on The Embankment in Moscow, a place where the Soviet elite lived in luxury that was unimaginable to most citizens. However, life there came with the terrible price of greater scrutiny by the secret police. Historically, a very high proportion of residents were dragged off, charged with treason, tortured, and killed or imprisoned. The author has created an almost surreally Kafkaesque scenario to explain why so many residents were disappeared—to borrow a term from Argentina’s dirty war. (I did search to see if the method of spying St. Clair describes was real but without success.) The novel follows Zhenya through the arrest of her parents and down the unexpected path she takes to and through the horrific Gulag system.

This project was an ambitious undertaking for a debut novel, and to a large extent, St. Clair pulls it off. The horrors inflicted by Stalin’s regime are vividly portrayed without gratuitous descriptions of brutality. The five main characters caught up in the story are sympathetic and distinctive. The themes of the novel remind me of The Lives of Others, the brilliant 2006 German film about the Stasi. There is also a touch of magical realism used effectively to enhance the story rather than distract from it.

I have two minor quibbles. I was hoping for an author’s note to explain what was real and what was fictional invention. If St. Clair ever issues a second edition, I think he should consider adding one. The second quibble is that the language was a bit stilted for my personal taste. I suspect this was intentional to evoke both the past and the foreignness of Russian culture. I’d have preferred a lighter hand with that technique, but it wasn’t enough of an issue to slow my reading.

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