I was unfamiliar with Edward Rutherford until I stumbled across Russka earlier this year. Based on our reading of Russka and what I know if his other novels, he can be succinctly described as Britain’s James Michener. Russka opens with a “primitive” settlement and traces the descendents of this community down to the 20th century. In the process, Rutherford hits some of the high points (or call them low points, if you like) of Russian history. Rutherford appears to write from a markedly Anglophile point of view, particularly in his presentation of Russia’s “backwardness” and perhaps also in his choice of historical scenarios. I would be interested in hearing a Russian reader’s response to Russka.
Brian comments that Rutherford appears to take his cues from classic Russian literature. There are, certainly, obvious allusions (like a chapter titled “Fathers and Sons” or a character who throws herself under the wheels of a streetcar). But Brian’s observation had more to do with the difficulty of keeping track of characters, as well as the sense, at times, that the narrative is dragging on, and on … not unlike War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov. At nearly 1,000 pages, Russka takes the reader on an epic journey. In another point of similarity: Don’t expect happy endings … suicides, violent deaths, disappointed lovers … they’re all here. The novel is composed of lengthy chapters, some of which could almost be self-contained, stand-alone narratives. Few end in “happily ever after.”
It strikes me that I may not have conveyed an appealing image of Rutherford’s work thus far. We did enjoy it, however. Most prominently, Rutherford crafts engaging plotlines. And we picked up a few points of Russian history in the course of the book. I should note that our first daughter was born when we were somewhere in the middle of it, so our literary experience was marked by lower-than-average levels of concentration. The good news is that you can enjoy the stories without following all the politics or the intergenerational connections between characters. Of course, you miss out on other levels of interpretation, but this just leaves more to get out of a second reading.