They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but I'm afraid it was the cover of Zoia's Gold that attracted me to it in my local library. The woman's face reminded me a little of an Italian Renaissance Madonna with the soft shadows reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's genius. Reading the blurb on the back cover convinced me that as an art lover I was likely to enjoy this book.
An interesting blend of fact and fiction, the story intertwines two threads, the factual one focusing on the Russian artist Zoia Korvin-Krukovsky and the fictional one on Marcus Elliott who is in Sweden to catalogue the artist's work following her death. The thread concerning Marcus moves chronologically and is set totally in Sweden. The one that revolves around Zoia, however, switches from one period of her life to another, backwards and forwards, and covers relationships or affairs with a number of men. I did once or twice find it a little difficult to remember who was who. There are accounts of time she spent in Russia, Sweden, Paris and Tunisia, very contrasting cultures ranging from the grim reality of Russia during the revolution to the artists' community in Paris between the two World Wars.
Marcus Elliott is a man beset by problems, both in his career and in his personal life. Researching the life of Zoia through her hundreds of letters that span most of the twentieth century becomes an obsession for him, but there are good reasons for this obsession, reasons that date back to his traumatic childhood. So many of the men that came into contact with Zoia during her lifetime seem to have come under her spell, and it is as though Marcus is the last in this long line. I did feel sympathy for Marcus and his devotion to his research; he perseveres despite a number of setbacks ranging from the cutting off of the power supply in Zoia's Swedish house where he is cataloguing her letters to the opposition of certain powerful people who feel threatened by the facts that his work may uncover. At the same time he is fighting a custody battle over his daughter and is beset by obstacles here too. In his quest to find the missing pieces of Zoia's life, he actually discovers a great deal about himself as well. Kerstin, a young Swedish reporter who had a meaningful encounter with Zoia, has a part to play in this too.
Zoia herself is an extremely complex character, described in the book's blurb as 'the last-known survivor of the Romanov court'. At the outset of the novel we are introduced to her when she is an inmate in Moscow's Lubyanka prison at the age of eighteen, fearing that she will at any moment be dragged off to face the firing squad the following morning. I wouldn't be spoiling the plot by telling you that this does not happen, since we know that Zoia actually lived to the ripe old age of ninety-six. As the novel progressed, I did not always find it easy to identify with her volatile personality, but having said that her life is not dealt with chronologically, some of the most difficult events of her teenage and young adult years are not revealed until the later part of the book. As I gradually fit the pieces of the puzzle together, I could begin to understand how hard it must have been for her to come to terms with her life and I eventually felt a tremendous amount of compassion for her.
Minor characters range from the various men in Zoia's life, in particular the Tunisian Alain Azria, to an elderly lady in a care home who had known Zoia in her earlier life and whom Marcus goes to visit, hoping to gain vital clues that will assist his research. Whether factual or fictional, they are all convincingly portrayed.
Sington has a very accomplished style of writing that I did not find hard going at all. It is quite a while since I read anything approaching a four-hundred page novel (although this is not totally a novel), but I did find this hard to put down. Some readers might find the brevity of the chapters annoying, but for me it is usually an encouragement to move on. Occasionally the chapters are interspersed with authentic correspondance either to or from Zoia herself. Perhaps the most difficult passages of the book are the harrowing accounts of life during the Russian Revolution; it is so long since I studied history at school, and at that time the twentieth century was not considered to be 'history'. Because of this, the Russian Revolution is an event about which I knew little or nothing before reading Zoia's Gold, and it certainly was an eye-opener for me in this respect. The most grim chapter of all is one recounting a train journey that Zoia undertook with her mother; it is not for the faint-hearted, but if you skip it the puzzle will not be quite complete. There are one or two episodes of a sexual nature, but they are not overly graphic and ought not to offend an adult, I would have thought.
The Author's Note at the end of the book emphasises that the letters reproduced have been done so 'faithfully, although not always at full length'. Sington also stresses that the main characters appearing in the factual parts of the book (relating to Zoia's life) are genuine, but that some of the names have been changed, notably that of Alain Azria. It is clear that Sington has researched every aspect of this book thoroughly, whether it relates to events in Zoia's life, English family law (concerning Marcus Elliott's personal life), gilding techniques in art or import/export issues in the realm of the art dealer.
I could happily read Zoia's Gold again and in fact fully intend to; I think I might find a second reading easier now that I know the ins and outs of the two principle threads. It is a book that needs concentration but is so well written that it is a pleasure, certainly not a chore, to read. Even knowing what the final outcome is, a second read for me would still prove very worthwhile; having initially borrowed the book from the library I am considering buying my own copy. That in itself is a strong recommendation.
According to Wikipedia, Philip Sington has previously written several thrillers together with author Gary Humphreys under the pseudonym Patrick Lynch (Omega, The Policy, Carriers). Zoia's Gold is Sington's first solo novel, but I hope it will not be his last.
by Philip Sington
Atlantic Books, 2006
Paperback, 392 pages
Price £7.99 (Amazon £5.99, Marketplace from £0.01 at the time of writing)
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