Quercus, 2013This novel, by award winning Russian author Mikhail Shishkin, takes the form of letters between Sashsa (or Sashenka) and Vovka (or Volodenka/Volodya). However, what at first appears to be a typical love affair soon has the sense of something quite out of the ordinary. Sasha and Vovka are separated by war, as Vovka is in the army - "the only thing still left to do was to choose myself a war." he writes. Although it is never specified which war he is fighting in, possibly it is the Boxer Rebellion, which sets his letters around 1900. However, Sasha's letters seem to belong to a more modern age and, eventually, we realise this remarkable couple are kept apart not only by location and circumstance, but also time. As the novel progresses, these letters become the outpourings of their lives. They cover their childhoods, relationships with parents, step-parents and friends. The man who became a soldier writes of playing at war with buttons, while his mother asks, "do you know that every button that's killed has a mummy too, and she's waiting at home, crying?" Indeed, much of this novel muses on mankind's never-ending ability to wage war. From contemplating the "ideal death" and the fear of being maimed, while Sasha is at home dealing with the mundane and the difficult. This is a remarkable novel about a unique couple. "You and I have been one whole for a long time. What can separate us? There is nothing that can separate us." (Z Riaz Review)
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