“Who is to Blame?” by Jane Marlow

As a professional Russianist, I approached this book with both curiosity and trepidation. I’m always excited to see a Western book with a Russian theme, but at the same time, I’m so often disappointed in the execution. “Who Is to Blame?” definitely reads more like a Western take on a Russian theme than like actual Russian literature, but it will probably appeal much more to English-language readers because of that.

The novel is a fact-dense piece of historical fiction about a particularly turbulent period in Russian history (aren’t they all!): the 1840s through the 1860s, culminating in the emancipation of the serfs. It is full of the kind of period detail that historical fiction readers seem to like; in fact, in tone, despite its rather dark subject matter, it reminded me of a historical romance novel, with its careful–and obviously lovingly researched–descriptions of food, clothing, holidays, laws, and so on. This is not to say that it is a dry collection of facts, but rather that readers who enjoy that kind of novel are likely to take pleasure in the detailed (and astonishingly accurate for a Western work) descriptions of how the people of mid-19th-century Russia lived. The tragedy and brutality of people’s day-to-day lives is depicted with courage, but there is also the hope that things could get better, and that the main characters will be able to turn their lives around and find some kind of happiness.

Like any good historical novel, it starts off slowly, allowing the reader to become immersed in the characters and their world, but the tension builds and builds, and I found the last 100 pages completely enthralling. It ends not exactly on a cliffhanger, but in a place that suggests the possibility of a sequel, hinting at a family saga-type series. This is not a light read, and English speakers may struggle a bit with the Russian names (although they are presented with the maximum possible clarity for non-Russian-speakers), but anyone looking for a satisfyingly dense historical novel about Russia would do well to check this book out.

My thanks to NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book.

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