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The summer of ’47. In the sleepy town of Villiers-la-Forêt, roughly an hour from Paris, the peaceful radiance of the day is interrupted by the discovery that, along a nearby riverbank, the body of a man has washed up, a gaping wound in his skull. Beside him rests a beautiful, nearly bare-breasted woman, her dress soaked and in tatters. An accident or foul play? A crime of passion? Soon there are almost as many speculations and theories as there are townspeople. The woman, it turns out, is a Russian princess, Olga Arbyelina, a refugee from the Bolshevik revolution who in the 1930s had settled in town along with many of her compatriots. Rumor was that Olga's husband, a dashing prince given to gambling and revels, had deserted her some years after the couple's arrival in France, leaving her alone to care for their young son. About the victim, also a Russian refugee, little is known: many years Olga's elder, he was a taciturn, rather coarse, slightly ridiculous man name Sergei Golets, thought dismissively to be a former horse butcher. What on earth could have brought these two unlikely souls together?
Makine meticulously re-creates Olga's past—her enchanted childhood; her pampered youth and fevered, transitory embrace of the revolution; her arduous flight toward freedom; her encounter with the dashing White Army officer who saved her life; her marriage and arrival in France; the birth of her adored son. Love has its limits, its limitations and boundaries. But in a woman of great passion, what do such limits mean when you know that each day may be the last for your son?
The intricate thoughts and fears of a Russian migr mother take center stage in this elaborately haunting work from the author of Dreams of My Russian Summers. In 1947, in Villiers-la-For t, France, Sergei Golets, an unlicensed doctor and former officer in Russia's anticommunist White Army, drowns in a boating accident. His companion, Princess Olga Arbyelina, survives: she claims to have murdered Golets, though the police are sure his death was an accident. Why would the princess accuse herself of homicide? The answer emerges gradually amid Olga's lyrically tangled (and chronologically disarrayed) memories. Olga's husband, a swashbuckling poet, left her in 1939, when their hemophiliac son was seven. Since then Olga has lived with her frail son among the other Russian exiles in Villiers-la-For t. In 1946, Olga discovers she's pregnant, and travels to Paris for an abortion. Though she has a lover, the pregnancy puzzles her, since its timing doesn't match his visits. One day she spots her teenage son shaking something into the flower infusion she drinks before bedtime, and understanding floods her: he has been drugging her in order to enter her bed. Tormented by her fears for his future (he is sure to die young), and by dread of her own old age, she decides to let him continue his incestuous practice, pretending continued ignorance during the day, and feigning unconsciousness at night during his lovemaking. All is, if hardly well, consistently settled--until Golets, her son's doctor, confesses that he has spied on them. Abetted by Strachan's sinuous translation, Makine gives Olga such a rich interior life that other characters, including the nameless son, seem like shadows her psyche casts. But readers in tune with Makine's goals will not object. Olga's involuted, tormented consciousness becomes a sophisticated pleasure in its own right, and a metaphor for the displaced, disintegrating aristocracy. That same consciousness, and the events that destroy it, invoke larger mythic patterns--Cupid and Psyche, Beauty and the Beast. Makine's novel possesses the feverish beauty of a hothouse culture in its final efflorescence.