In a Nutshell: The prospect of reading a thriller based upon the musty files of a Soviet archive may not sound too enthralling, but Bequest ends up being a sophisticated and clever debut novel, from an equally sophisticated and clever writer.
Well I’ve turned the last page of Anna Shevchenko’s debut novel Bequest (Headline), and so it’s time to let you know what I really thought of it. I’ve already been raving on about it quite a bit in my Reading Journal and and on Twitter, so I think you know my afterthoughts on this one are going to be to the positive. But what still remains a bit of an unknown is just how much to the positive I found Bequest in the end.
Before I go on to tell you what I really thought of Bequest then, I’ll begin by offering up a little bit of background on it. I’ve already written a fair amount on Ukrainian-born Anna Shevchenko and her debut novel in my forethoughts post (and in an earlier Daily Bookshot) but just to recap:
Bequest is an international political thriller, whose plot centres around the old Ukrainian legend that a substantial amount on Cossack gold is secreted in the vaults of the Bank of England. The gold is there to be claimed back in the name of Ukraine, but only when Ukraine has secured its own independence, and then, only by a direct descendant of the Cossack colonel who first bequeathed it.
Three documents are directly linked with making a claim for the Cossack gold and they are stored in the archives in Moscow, in a two-centuries-old investigation file relating to the matter. However, a Russian Security Service officer called Taras Petrenko stumbles across this file – designated N1247 – and finds that all three of the documents are missing (Aghast! Horror!). And so begins an international cat and mouse game as Lieutenant Petrenko attempts to revive his stagnant career by foiling any attempt to claim the substantial gold stash (which is so substantial it could tip the balance of power in Europe), while a pro-Ukrainian in the know, attempts to solicit the help of a nondescript but document-savvy British lawyer called Kate, who has a penchant for dusty archives.
Dull into Dazzling
So on the face of it a political thriller that promises archival searching and document interpretation as a main feature has got to sound a little on the tedious side right? Well actually Bequest turns out to be nowhere near as dull as it may sound. Visits to the archives are certainly a prominent feature of the novel – an integral part of the story as one might expect – but Shevchenko has this incredible knack of making even a ‘jog along’ to the dusty archives of the Bank of England et al sound almost like a trip to Disneyland (well if you are an archive loving researcher that is :)). Furthermore, Shevchenko’s fictional Bank of England archives house one of the real unsung heroes of the novel for me, Jolly Roger. So if you read Bequest then keep a close eye out for him!
As to the dreary business of documents and their interpretation, well that goes hand-in-hand with archival rummaging doesn’t it? And with the primary artifact of this novel also being stuffy old documents, the prospect of an exciting read looks far off and distant. Well fear not dear reader for Anna Shevchenko cleverly transforms dull into dazzling by using letters/documents/archive records etc. as a trigger for flashbacks. So rather than simply presenting a musty old document to the reader, and have him/her apathetically amble their way through it, Shevchenko ‘transforms’ the document into an ‘all-colourful’ period flashback where the reader finds himself/herself at the time and scene of the event being described in the document; all very appealing, and all very readable.
So dear reader it’s not all sounding quite as dreary now is it? But lest we forget, let’s also factor in all of the scenes of interrogation, murder, behind-closed-doors political negotiation, globe-trekking and a little bit of the love thing, and Bequest reveals itself as being much more the literary dazzler that it is.
Shevchenko’s literary ‘box of tricks’
I said in my forethoughts for Bequest that it would be interesting to see how Shevchenko unleashed her pent-up ambition to be writer (her parents discouraged it as it was seen as the occupation of a dissident, under the Soviet scheme), and boy doesn’t she just. It’s clear that Shevchenko has poured every ounce of heart and soul into this novel (along with the tribute of including an adaptation of her grandfather’s war diaries), and like the proverbial child let loose in the candy store, Shevchenko employs a myriad of clever little literary techniques to drive the narrative forward in anything but a mundane and straightforward way.
I don’t even know the proper name for half of the literary techniques that Shevchenko employs in Bequest, because they are so new to me, but the reader can expect parallel story-threads, end-of-chapter cliffhangers, the aforementioned flashbacks, this unusual little thing where characters unconsciously mirror one another’s actions but in in different locations, and a ton of other literary techniques that I’ve no doubt forgotten about.
Additionally, one can really tell that Shevchenko is a linguist by profession (she’s actually fluent in seven languages), because she loves playing with words (and she admits as much in a recent radio interview). Often slipping in the odd Ukrainian word – but also cleverly including it’s meaning without breaking the narrative – Bequest ends up being quite the cultural and multilingual reading experience too; which is all good.
Inherently however, Shevchenko’s extensive literary ‘box of tricks’ can bring about a few problems. Occasionally there are so many things going on; so many different literary techniques being employed; so much jumping around, that I would momentarily find myself derailed from the storyline, and I would need a bit of backward page flipping and ‘thinking time’ in order to get back on board. That said however, the freshness and variety of storytelling techniques that Shevchenko brings with this novel, is, I think, well worth the nominal amount of backtracking and ‘mulling over’ that one may have to invest in, so I can’t really knock Shevchenko for effort.
If I had any other little issues then I would also say that I would have liked to have seen Shevchenko drawing out some of the more dramatic scenes a little more. While she still manages to create a few ‘wow moments’ she tends to fly through them, and leaves no room for a bit of tension building, which I think is an integral part of the thriller novel.
Cossack gold or fool’s gold?
So ultimately, is Bequest worth its weight in Cossack gold or does it turn out to be nothing but a pile of old fool’s gold? Well I’m rather thrilled with it and I think any reader who loves their thrillers tinged with a bit of sophistication, will find that Bequest glistens with as much gleam as a 24 carat nugget. I adore the inventiveness of the prose and the ingenuity of its author, and although I think there are one or two issues with Shevchenko trying a little too hard to squeeze in as much literary technique as possible (I think ‘less is more’ definitely rings true in this case), I both welcome this new and exciting author to the literary stage, and eagerly await her second helping.
Headline | January 2010 | £19.99 | HARDBACK | 346 PP | ISBN: 9780755356362
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