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The Unreliable People by Rosetta Allan


I find it fascinating when a Kiwi author sets their novel somewhere other than New Zealand. Allan has chosen the bleak, cold climes of Russia and Kazakhstan, on account of being the first New Zealand Writer-in-Residence at the St Petersburg Art Residency in 2016 and, while there, learning about the fate of the Koryo-Saram. Koryo-Saram – considered “unreliable people” by Stalin - are ethnic Koreans who, from the 1860s, migrated to Russia in search of a better life, but as a result of the Soviet leader’s Great Purge in the mid-1930s, were shipped 3700 miles away to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.


Opening with an absorbing account of child abduction – by a mother, no less – The Unreliable People is a cornucopia of concepts. It is at once a coming-of-age story about St Petersburg art student Antonia, a Kazakh-born Koryo-Saram caught between cultures; the clash between classic and contemporary art; the tests of friendship, the lengths one will go to to retrieve what is lost; the minute degrees of separation between us.


While the child abduction might suggest an action-filled novel, it’s nothing of the sort: it’s a gently paced meander through time and place - all wrapped up in a seemingly effortless and exquisite prose which reads like cutting a knife through soft butter. And as Antonia finds her voice, her strength, her soul - you’ll find yourself rooting for her.


Reviewer: Stacey Anyan

Penguin Random House, $38

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