#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews THE SILVER BONE: THE KYIV MYSTERIES by Andrey Kurkov

1919, Kyiv. A silver femur, a German tailor, mysterious fabric patterns, a priest-turned policeman, a student-turned detective with a severed ear – and a city of 500,000 people living in fear, poverty, mayhem and anarchy. After the revolutions and violence of 1917 and 1918, the Soviet Red Army controls Kyiv, threatened by warring factions and the breakdown of order internally. So much crime to investigate, so many criminals – never was the need for honest and morally upstanding crime-busters so urgent. Against this backdrop Samson Kolechko, a red-haired, naive engineering student in need of a job stumbles into Police Headquarters, and is recruited as a detective, because he writes eloquently. It’s surreal, absurd – but nothing makes sense in 1919 Kyiv, and this is an Andrey Kurkov novel after all, the master of the absurd, the brilliant storyteller and historian of Ukraine. The battle for Ukrainian independence is being fought in 1919 – another reason this novel resonates so powerfully today.

The opening scene is dramatic and bloody, as Samson’s father is murdered in front of him by Soviet Cossacks and Samson’s ear is sliced off with a sabre. His whole family is now dead, it’s winter, he’s wounded, hungry and cold, shuffles round the city and the empty flat quietly grieving and disoriented, soon to be joined by two Red Army soldiers who requisition the flat and the furniture. Strangely, Samson can hear everything they say, even at a distance. It transpires that his severed ear, which he’d popped into a metal box in his father’s study, can still hear! And so begins a wonderful meandering detective story which shows off Kurkov’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Kyiv streets and history. His characters are richly drawn and everyday life is closely observed. Much of this detail is thanks to Kurkov’s skills and warmth as a writer but also thanks to an astonishing gift from a reader who gve him a stash of Bolshevik secret police files dating from the post-first world war, which adds to the authenticity of Samson’s cases.

History is happening at breakneck speed in this novel but Samson takes his time, unhurriedly solving his first case, the mystery of the silver bone, slowly falling in love with the delightful statistician Nadezhda, who is on the team drawing up a census of the city. There is love, humour and kindness in spite of the times, and Samson is an original, intelligent and likeable sleuth. Like me, you might be reminded of another great writer in this genre of literary and historical thrillers, Boris Akunin, the Georgian writer and critic of Putin, long since exiled from Russia. 

The Silver Bone is Andrey Kurkov’s 12th novel in English translation – we have the superlative poet and translator Boris Dralyuk to thank for this one. It’s the first of three Kyiv Mysteries and was this month longlisted for the 2024 International Booker Prize. It was published in 2020 in Ukraine, before Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country, and Kurkov has excelled since then as a journalist reporting on Ukraine to the world. Recently he explained to The Guardian newspaper that he felt unable to write fiction as it’s, “too guilty a pleasure to write fiction in a time of war. It felt like something sinful. To write a novel you also need to concentrate on the world of the novel, not on your reality. And the reality didn’t let me think about anything else. It was like being imprisoned by reality, checking the news every hour all day and then waking up several times a night to check it again.”

I’ve read all of Kurkov’s books in English and therefore surely count as a serious and dedicated fan. Despite the tragedy and despair of the period, the warmth, humour and wisdom of The Silver Bone, makes me hope that he never forsakes fiction – and, most importantly, that the war ends in victory for Ukraine.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

THE SLVER BONE: THE KYIV MYSTERIES 

by Andrey Kurkov

translated by Boris Dralyuk 

published by MacLehose Press (2024)

March 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Rosie Goldsmith is Director and Founder of the European Literature Network and Editor-in-Chief of The Riveter. She was a BBC broadcaster for twenty years and is today an arts journalist and presenter. She was chair of the judges for the EBRD Literature Prize 2018–2020.

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