#RivetingReviews: Paul Burke reviews EASTBOUND by Maylis de Kerangal

Two strangers connect on the Trans-Siberian Express bound for the troubled border with China, drawn to each other by a desire to escape their current predicaments: Hélène is fleeing her lover, Aliocha is deserting the Russian army. The intimacy of their tête-à-tête is delivered in a rhythmic, vital prose, infused with the romance of this iconic rail journey. This is an exploration of the borders we live by – physical, emotional and psychological – inspired by a journey from Novosibirsk to Vladivostok that de Kerangal made in 2010 while writing a feature on French-Russian relations as part of a French Ministry of Culture initiative.

Published in French in 2012, it deals with contemporaneous events, yet it seems prescient given the recent Russian invasion of the Ukraine, particularly in view of Putin’s new plan for conscription that will see 300,000 untrained troops thrown into the bloody conflict in an attempt to reverse Moscow’s setbacks. The losses are already staggering, but Russian troops, even those who won the ‘great patriotic war’, have always been cannon fodder. And this is the very plight of the young man at the centre of this novel. 

In a Moscow station a cohort of recruits mill around, waiting to board their train. Among them is Aliocha, twenty years old and still a virgin. Like the boys around him he is terrified for his future. There are stories of the mistreatment of recruits, but they only scratch the surface of the brutality and neglect he will face. General Smirnov says conditions have changed; they haven’t. Mothers protest in Pushkin Square, but no one listens. 

Aliocha thought he had avoided the call-up but they came for him on the last day of the spring draft. The rich dodge it, as do those who can afford to fake medical conditions, but the poor are trapped. Some are desperate enough to get a girl pregnant to earn an exemption from the draft. 

Aliocha doesn’t know where they are sending him. Once the train departs Aliocha asks the carriage hostess when the next stop is, and moments later she whispers in a sergeant’s ear. Are his thoughts of escape obvious to them? 

Fortunately for him, he then meets Hélène, and they share a drink. Their communication is limited by language but each feels the need in the other. Hélène, a French woman, followed her lover Anton to Siberia, but their relationship turned sour, so she is making her escape. She feels sorry for Aliocha – the man is really a boy; she feels responsible, perhaps motherly towards him. So she takes him into her cabin and hides him. It’s a bold step, one with consequences that would be serious for her but devastating for Aliocha if he is discovered. 

As well as chiming with current world events, this is a very personal story of two lost souls, reluctantly but irresistibly drawn together. Their reasons for running are different – she is making a considered decision, his is instinctive, fearful, desperate even – but their hopes are bound together.

Their brief intimacy is beautifully rendered, a stark contrast to the violence of the world around them – a touch of humanity in a sea of brutality. And the story of Aliocha’s escape is loaded with tension and suspense, to the point where it is almost like thriller. There’s also something of the sweeping Russian saga in the landscape and political scope of this brief, perfectly pitched novel. I can’t help feeling this story is more urgent than ever. 

Reviewed by Paul Burke


By Maylis de Kerangal 

Translated by Jessica Moore

Published by Les Fugitives (2022)

September 2022 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

Paul Burke writes reviews, interviews, articles and features for crimefictionlover.com and crimetime.co.uk. He is editor and presenter of the Crime Time FM podcast and is a judge for the CWA Historical Dagger. Paul is a book collector, lover of literature in translation and a crime fiction aficionado.

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Category: September 2022Reviews


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