[Editor’s note: To mark the announcement of the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction on Monday, we’ll be running reviews of the three nominated finalists, contributed by guest bloggers. This is the first of three; look for the other two next week.]
BY JORDAN HEATH-RAWLINGS
Like the best of historical narratives, Ana Siljak’s Angel of Vengeance paints a vivid picture of pre-revolutionary Russia, while staying close enough to her characters to assure that it never veers towards textbook territory.
After beginning with an account of a fateful day during the winter of 1878 when a young noblewoman named Vera Zasulich calmly strode into the office of the governor of St. Petersburg, drew a pistol from her clothes and shot General Fedor Trepov, Siljak then pulls back her lens to offer a look at a country bubbling with unspoken anger.
Siljak’s descriptions of life in the hierarchies of Russian nobility and poverty are as fascinating as they are depressing. The reader can almost see the hues of grey and brown that would be the cinematographer’s best friends should Angel of Vengeance ever capture the imagination of a film studio.
And it should — not because it would allow for those depressing colours — but becuse Zasulich is a complex heroine who conducts herself with a quiet dignity that makes her failed assassination attempt and her subsequent trial (featuring a colourful lawyer who more than makes up for the more reserved nature of his client) that much more fascinating to behold.
Despite a revolutionary zeal, Zasulich doesn’t come across as a grandstanding character, and Siljak — a professor of history at Queen’s University in Kingston — simply presents her life, and the subtle differences between Zasulich’s life and that of the average Russian noblewoman, and lets her actions speak for themselves, the same way her subject did 130 years ago in a cramped governor’s office.
It’s not difficult to find a solidly researched book about what life was like in a given place and time. What Siljak has captured here, though, is different. Her prose crackles with a life not often found in stories like these and her snapshot of a country quietly priming itself for upheaval fosters the sort of urgency in readers that is not often achieved in tomes that chronicle stories more than a century old.
It’s easy to understand, by the time you’re halfway through the book, why Zasulich became a martyr to the people of both her country and much of Europe, and an early face of revolution in Tsarist Russia. Siljak’s chronicle of Zasulich’s rise from ordinary noblewoman to the first female face of the revolution and subject of authors such as Dostoyevsky (who also attended her trial) is a fascinating examination of how, exactly, those smaller matches that start tremendous fires are sparked.