four-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
21-Mar-Apr-2006
By: 
James Meek
user_rating: 
0

A-ThePeoplesActOfLoveIn 1919, the last days of the Russian revolution play out in a small Siberian village. A group of stranded Czech soldiers, led by the megalomaniac Captain Matula, longs for home; a fanatical Christian sect, headed by Balashov, practices self-castration; and a beautiful photographer, Anna Petrovna, raises her son alone after her husband’s mutilation. The arrival of the revolutionary Samarin, a former prisoner from a Russian labor camp, sets the stage for a theater featuring all of humanity’s whims, foibles, and beliefs. As the village inhabitants strive to understand the cruel world around them, they must also find their places in it.
Canongate. 400 pages. $24. ISBN: 1841957305

Guardian 5 of 5 Stars
"I remain convinced that The People’s Act of Love is a truly great novel. … [It] stands alone as a perfectly realised work, with Meek fulfilling his own great potential as a storyteller, tying in his surreal fiction writing abilities and dark, quirky wit, with his great understanding of Russia." Irvine Welsh

Glasgow Herald 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Billed as a fable for modern times, Meek’s novel rather seems to be a fable for every time. … The book is illustrated with deeply spiritual imagery: the sinner’s walk into the wilderness, a darkness that resounds with chaos, a lost boy’s search for a father, angels of vengeance and of mercy, and a brooding, bloody sacrifice. It is this cumulative weight that paradoxically lifts the book." Hugh MacDonald

National Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love is an English novelist’s brilliant reduction and provocative updating of the world of the Russian classics. … If much of the action is horrific, the tone is humane." Robert Cushman

Independent 4 of 5 Stars
"Let’s keep a sense of proportion. This novel isn’t Tolstoy, and it certainly isn’t Kafka. … But it is an ambitious work, authentically Russian-flavoured, and unusual both by virtue of its subject and its author." Lesley Chamberlain

Mail on Sunday 4 of 5 Stars
"Once in a while a novel comes along that is so startlingly original as to defy categorisation. Meek succeeds brilliantly in creating a sense of place, and his depiction of fundamentalism and terrorism in the snow-covered hinterlands has obvious modern parallels. This is powerful storytelling indeed." Simon Humphreys

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"My sole initial reservation about this breathtaking novel is that everyone—from politicos to soldiers to peasants—seems always hip-deep in discussion of God, revolution and other weighty issues. That Samarin and Anna can sip cognac and debate the merits of cannibalism, minutes before their first sexual encounter, is only the oddest moment in this regard." Dan Cryer

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The People’s Act of Love is historical fiction at its finest. Author James Meek employs this distilling device brilliantly as he draws the mesmerized reader into the cold jaws of a restless Siberian enclave, whose landscapes and people will linger long after the last page is turned." Skye K. Moody

Critical Summary

That most critics compared this intellectual epic novel to those by the Russian Greats—Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—attests to its power. A study of fanaticism and faith, People’s Act draws a broad canvas of human history in its convincing depictions of battle, prison life, politics, romance, and revolution. Meek, an English novelist and Moscow correspondent, also creates pitch-perfect dialogue, deep characterizations, and affecting imagery. In the vein of Russian novels, much philosophizing takes place, which requires patience on the part of the reader. It’s well worth the effort. The novel’s epigraph, by Russian novelist Andrei Platonov, aptly characterizes the timelessness of humanity’s struggles—and the novel: "Busy remaking the world, man forgot to remake himself."