Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Dream Life of Sukhanov - Olga Grushin

Read: May 2007

Anatoly Sukhanov is a haughty middle aged man; a respected and well rewarded member of the Soviet Nomenklatura. He is arrogant and conceited, self satisfied and out of touch with his friends and family. His wife is growing increasingly frustrated by the intransigence of his Party line rhetoric and his children no longer respect him. He cannot remember the name of his chauffeur and sees fit to fire the maid when he suspects her of stealing his ties. He is so caught up in the status and position he has attained for himself that he has forgotten all that came before; he is suffering from the personal amnesia prevalent across society. But the year is 1985 and things are beginning to change, artists who were once persecuted now have public exhibitions. The climate is thaw and the man Sukhanov has become is being left behind.

Then, at a party one night he encounters a memory from his past, an alternate version of who he could have been had he made a different choice and followed his heart rather than his head all those years ago.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Olga Grushin’s debut novel, is a scintillating invocation of society on the brink of change, and a heartbreaking portrayal of a man about to lose everything. As Sukhanov’s family scatters his sense of reality begins to be accosted by dreamlike memories of a person he has forgotten he ever was.

It is a great achievement to be able to recreate the half real, half imagined world of Sukhanov’s unravelling mind. The prose is dense and inviting and wraps you inside itself like a comfy duvet. While reading it is easy to believe that you are reading one of the great novels of all time. And it is a very good, well conceived and brilliantly realised debut. There is something reminiscent of J.M. Coetzee’s Booker winning Disgrace in the sense of untameable regret at a life wasted. It is a similar portrayal of a middle-aged man whom history has seen fit to leave behind.

The setting spans thirty years and two thaws in Soviet censorship which Grushin uses perfectly to bring out the artistic temperament of her characters. Khrushchev’s thaw is one of the most fascinating periods in Soviet history, a time when all the aspects that made up that system were suddenly unmasked and those who wanted to see began to do so. There will be many more books which take this period as their central premise, but few will be as accomplished and powerful as The Dream Life of Sukhanov.

7.5 out of 10

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