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‘The Vanishing Futurist’ by Charlotte Hobson ****

Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist caught my eye soon after its publication in 2016, but it has taken me quite a while to procure a copy of the novel.  Russia and its history absolutely fascinates me, and I was intrigued by the twist which Hobson has added to the turmoil of the 1918 Revolutions.  Anthony Beever calls this novel ‘breathtakingly original, luminously intelligent and impossible to put down’, and The Guardian describes it as ‘a rapturous, carnival-like ride into political disorder, heady romance and absurdity.’
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The Vanishing Futurist is set in Moscow in 1918 where, in the ‘heady post-revolutionary atmosphere, a young English governess, Gerty Freely, and her friends throw themselves into the task of living as genuine communists.’  A rather mysterious and revered inventor, Nikita Slavkin, runs their commune.  He is ‘determined to revolutionise daily life with his technological innovations’, one of which is thought to have caused his disappearance.  The novel opens with a report from the Soviet Press, which states that ‘the Socialisation Capsule, Slavkin’s latest invention, represented an extraordinary advance in human knowledge… [and] revolutionised our understanding of the universe.’  Slavkin is thus the ‘Vanishing Futurist’ of the novel’s title.

Gerty, a headstrong young woman, takes it upon herself to find out the truth behind his disappearance, which becomes quite notorious in Russian circles.  In fact, his mysterious exit from Russia causes him to become a ‘Soviet icon’, with streets named after him, and films made about his life.  People remain convinced that one day he will reappear; ‘that if his Socialisation Capsule can distort our perception of temporal reality, then it can equally reinstate it.’

Gerty, in her late seventies, is looking back on her life, focusing upon her time in Russia when living in London.  She justifies this decision by saying: ‘My husband, Paul, died six months ago, and since then I have had the strange sensation that the present, my creaky old body in the little terraced house in Hackney which we bought together, is no longer my home.’  She reveals that she has kept this portion of her past a secret from her only daughter, Sophy, and it seems time to make amends.  Talking face to face seems difficult, so Gerty takes another route: ‘I find myself writing an account for her instead, using the papers as my starting point.  This way, I think, will be more truthful – more complete – than if I stammer it out incoherently.’

The novel is narrated by Gerty, who comes from Truro in Cornwall, and decides to become a governess for the Kobelev family in central Moscow.  Of her reasoning to do so, she states: ‘… I was a bookish, scrawny girl, a spinster in the making; argumentative and contrary to my father (as he often said) and disappointingly serious to my mother, who wanted to gossip with me about clothes.  Reading Tolstoy had made me long to visit this country full of peasant women in birch-bark sandals, young officers as fresh as cucumbers, forests filled with unheard-of berries.’ I found Gerty’s voice immediately believable, and its pace and turns of phrase were maintained with consistency throughout.

From the outset, Hobson weaves in rather sensuous descriptions to Gerty’s narrative, which allow her to deftly capture her drastically different change of surroundings: ‘… I was shown immediately to Mrs Kobelev’s room, the heart of the house, dark and hot and smelling of face powder and eau de cologne and slept-in sheets and violet lozenges.’  Moscow, one of my own favourite cities, has been marvellously captured in all of its mystery: ‘Moscow is a city that insinuates itself cunningly into one’s affections.  At first it fascinated and slightly repelled me, as some vast medieval fair might…  Yet slowly I came to know its little courtyards, its secret gardens and alleys, its cool green boulevards cast in relief against the bustle and noise.  It was impossible not to be charmed by the wooden houses and the bawdy streets, the little churches squeezed into every corner.  There was a sort of unexpected joyfulness about it all, unlike any other city I have known.’  Despite the outbreak of war, and the looming Revolutions, Gerty finds a freedom in Moscow that she has never known at home in Cornwall: ‘… I discovered a household where the most absurd and opposing views could be voiced, disagreed with, argued over or renounced without any tempers lost or touchy Chapel gods involved.’

Hobson successfully navigates her way through a pivotal period of Russia’s history, weaving in avant-garde elements against the backdrop of mass arrests and sea-change.  Moscow, and Russia on a grander scale, has been marvellously captured, and the entirety of the novel is so engaging.  There is humour here – for instance, Slavkin ‘ate a great deal of sandwiches, swallowing them whole, like a snake’.  I could not help but feel a fondness for Gerty.

Telling such a story through the eyes of a participant and also a bystander, as Gerty is, is a clever touch, which works well.  The Vanishing Futurist took a series of twists and turns which I was not expecting, and is a novel which is so clever, and so well executed.  I look forward both to picking up Hobson’s debut, and to seeing what she comes up with next.

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The Book Trail: Dorothy Whipple to Teffi

I am posting another book trail today, to see where we can get from the starting point of Dorothy Whipple.

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple 9781903155462
‘Like several of Dorothy Whipple’s brilliant mid-twentieth-century novels, this is apparently gentle but has a very strong theme, in this case domestic violence. Three sisters marry very different men and the choices they make determine whether they will flourish, be tamed or be repressed. Lucy’s husband is her beloved companion; Vera’s husband bores her and she turns elsewhere; and Charlotte’s husband is a bully who turns a high-spirited naive young girl into a deeply unhappy woman.’


9781910702505Freya 
by Anthony Quinn
‘London, May 1945. Freya Wyley, twenty, meets Nancy Holdaway, eighteen, amid the wild celebrations of VE Day, the prelude to a devoted and competitive friendship that will endure on and off for the next two decades. Freya, wilful, ambitious, outspoken, pursues a career in newspapers which the chauvinism of Fleet Street and her own impatience conspire to thwart, while Nancy, gentler, less self-confident, struggles to get her first novel published. Both friends become entangled at university with Robert Cosway, a charismatic young man whose own ambition will have a momentous bearing on their lives.   Flitting from war-haunted Oxford to the bright new shallows of the 1960s, Freya plots the unpredictable course of a woman’s life and loves against a backdrop of Soho pornographers, theatrical peacocks, willowy models, priapic painters, homophobic blackmailers, political careerists.  Beneath the relentless thrum of changing times and a city being reshaped, we glimpse the eternal: the battles fought by women in pursuit of independence, the intimate mysteries of the human heart, and the search for love. Stretching from the Nuremberg war trials to the advent of the TV celebrity, from innocence abroad to bitter experience at home, Freya presents the portrait of an extraordinary woman taking arms against a sea of political and personal tumult.’


Mothering Sunday
 by Graham Swift 9781471155239
‘It is March 30th 1924.  It is Mothering Sunday. How will Jane Fairchild, orphan and housemaid, occupy her time when she has no mother to visit? How, shaped by the events of this never to be forgotten day, will her future unfold?   Beginning with an intimate assignation and opening to embrace decades, Mothering Sunday has at its heart both the story of a life and the life that stories can magically contain. Constantly surprising, joyously sensual and deeply moving, it is Graham Swift at his thrilling best.’


9780571225194Golden Hill 
by Francis Spufford
‘One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger fresh off the boat pitches up at a counting-house door in Golden Hill Street: this is Mr Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion simmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge amount, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he can be planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money.  Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?  An astonishing first novel, as stuffed with incident as a whole shelf of conventional fiction, Golden Hill is both a book about the eighteenth century, and itself a novel cranked back to the form’s eighteenth century beginnings, when anything could happen on the page, and usually did, and a hero was not a hero unless he ran the frequent risk of being hanged.’


The Essex Serpent 
by Sarah Perry 9781781255445
‘London 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one, and she never suited the role of society wife. Accompanied by her son Francis – a curious, obsessive boy – she leaves town for Essex, where she hopes fresh air and open space will provide the refuge they need.  When they take lodgings in Colchester, rumours reach them from further up the estuary that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a previously undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar.  Like Cora, Will is deeply suspicious of the rumours, but he thinks they are founded on moral panic, a flight from real faith. As he tries to calm his parishioners, he and Cora strike up an intense relationship, and although they agree on absolutely nothing, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart, eventually changing each other’s lives in ways entirely unexpected. ‘


9780571234868The Vanishing Futurist 
by Charlotte Hobson
When twenty-two-year-old Gerty Freely travels to Russia to work as a governess in early 1914, she has no idea of the vast political upheavals ahead, nor how completely her fate will be shaped by them.  In 1917, revolution sweeps away the Moscow Gerty knew. The middle classes – and their governesses – are fleeing the country, but she stays, throwing herself into an experiment in communal living led by charismatic inventor Nikita Slavkin, inspired by his belief in a future free of bourgeois clutter and alight with creativity. Yet the chaos and violence of the outside world cannot be withstood forever. Slavkin’s sudden disappearance inspires the Soviet cult of the Vanishing Futurist, the scientist who sacrificed himself for the Communist ideal. Gerty, alone and vulnerable, must now discover where that ideal will ultimately lead.  Strikingly vivid, this debut novel by award-winning writer Charlotte Hobson pierces the heart with a story of fleeting, but infinite possibility.’


Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea 
by Teffi 9781782271697
The writer and satirist Teffi was a literary sensation in Russia until war and revolution forced her to leave her country for ever. Memories is her blackly funny and heartbreaking account of her final, frantic journey into exile across Russia-travelling by cart, freight train and rickety steamer-and the ‘ordinary and unheroic’ people she encounters. From refugees setting up camp on a dockside to a singer desperately buying a few ‘last scraps’ of fabric to make a dress, all are caught up in the whirlwind; all are immortalized by Teffi’s penetrating gaze. Fusing exuberant wit and bitter horror, this is an extraordinary portrayal of what it means to say goodbye, with haunting relevance in today’s new age of diaspora. Published in English for the first time, it confirms the rediscovery of Teffi as one of the most humane, perceptive observers of her time, and an essential writer for ours.’

Who thought we would start with a wonderful novel about England and end up in Russia and the Baltic?  As ever, if you have enjoyed this and wish to suggest a starting point for the next Literary Trail, please do!