There can be little doubt that by the time you reach the end of Self Help by Edward Docx (due for publication in July) you have been on a very long and chilly Dostoevskyan Russian journey with some latter-day New York, Paris and London thrown in.
At 500+ pages in proof copy it's the length of a Russian novel too and in many ways it takes this long for the cast of characters in this book to sort themselves out.Several of them seem to be following in Raskolnikov's footsteps and probably other Dosty characters but I've only ever read Crime and Punishment so that's the only comparison I can safely make.It's also the only real image I have in my mind of St Petersburg so any hint of it in a novel and I lock onto it.
That said this is also a thoroughly modern novel of our times.
Gabriel and Isabella, twin children of Masha and her estranged Paris-based husband Nicholas Glover, are called to St Petersburg following Masha's sudden death.
The family has its roots in the spy set of Cambridge University where Nicholas's father Grandpa Max first joined the ranks.I never quite grasped who had spied for who but really that's not what this book is about.
Each member of the family and some add-ons, including the talented pianist Arkady Artamenkov and his mentor the drug-raddled Harry, have to work out how best to help themselves extract whatever it is they want and need from life and all in amongst the tangled web of intrigue that Masha has left behind.
Several moments of great pathos stick in my mind, you will be hard-pushed to read a more heart-rending account of the hopelessness of heroine addiction for a start...unless of course you've read Some Hope by Edward St Aubyn in which case you'll be able to make evidence-based comparisons between the privileged and the down-and-out approaches.Both have similar outcomes.No veins, no money and death hovering around every fix.
Self Help did not feel like a page-turner to me, more a slow burner of a book that gets under your skin and takes hold as you follow the undulating course of all these lives as they move towards an unexpected twist in the tale that I hadn't really seen coming.One of those twists that was clever enough to make me go back over the long and chilly Dostoevskyan Russian journey with some New York, Paris and London thrown in and interpret first thoughts into second thoughts and come to some quite different conclusions about everyone.
That makes it a good read but prepare yourself, it's quite a cold one, you will need chocolate and blankets.