Midnight in St. Petersburg by Vanora Bennett
Vanora Bennett’s tale, set in the bitter Russian landscape of Pogroms, revolutionary tension, assassinations and rampant rumours in 1910s St. Petersburg, has all the marks of a wonderful historical novel.
Midnight in St. Petersburg follows the life of Inna, a young Jewish orphan, who makes her way to St. Petersburg after her guardians flee to Palestine to escape the anti-Semitic threat in Russia. Inna, a Bovary-esque beauty and a dab hand on the violin, finds protectors in the city when she is taken in by her guardian’s family, and given work in their violin shop. Of course, it’s not too long before Inna finds some menfolk to fret over among the political intrigue and looming police threat in St. Petersburg, or Petrograd, as the city is known as from the 1917 revolution onwards.
As an award-winning correspondent of war and current affairs in Russia, Bennett wears her historical knowledge on her sleeve. Midnight in St. Petersburg whets the appetite of readers interested in the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of a communist dictatorship. The mood of the time is caught in dinner table debates, pamphleteering, and overheard rumours that grow to the mounting violence expressed as Bennett jumps ahead in the narrative to cover the latter part of the decade. Inna strikes up a friendship on the way to St. Petersburg with Rasputin, is showered with Faberge trinkets, and bargains for food on the black market as the ration queues continue to grow. As an English character observes throughout, Russia possesses a dangerous thrill that makes everywhere else seem a bit on the bland side.
Along with the historical context of the novel, Bennett’s love of classical music – herself a daughter of respected musicians – propels the narrative. Inna’s mix of daring and shyness comes through when she plays the violin: creating a conflict between her wish to perform and the risks of violence and anti-Semitism at the hands of a Russian audience.
At the heart of the novel is the love triangle between Inna, her revolutionary cousin Yasha, and the English businessman Horace who plies her with Faberge. Inna’s love interests are heavily sign-posted from the offset and take on a Heathcliff/Edgar dynamic, with Yasha as the spirited, impoverished lover and Horace as the sensible and well-off husband. Even though Inna avoids being a pithy damsel in distress, Bennett walks far too thin a line along cliché that never really draws the audience in. Both men are painted too crudely for either to really be worth rooting for. Inna is rather distant and pretty uninterested in the politics that surrounds her and this often inhibits the reader’s immersion into the well-crafted historical mood of the narrative. As the narrative progresses, there’s a growing chasm between the sophisticated scenes full of historical detail and snappy dialogue, and the more meagre domestic spaces that Inna and her love life inhabit.
Bennett manages to tie up the love triangle with the heat of the revolution by the time we reach 1919 and the pace does speed up to a satisfying ending. Overall, Bennett’s clear talent, experience as a writer and expertise in Russian history make Midnight in St. Petersburg a cracking read. Unfortunately, this talent has to shine through a rather misty-eyed romance that doesn’t live up to the intelligence or potential of the turbulent time that Bennett evokes.
REVIEWER: Jazz Croft
TITLE: Midnight in St. Petersburg
AUTHOR: Vanora Bennett
PUBLISHER: Random House