If you read this book without first reading the sleeve notes, you’d be surprised to discover that this is a debut novel by young American writer Travis Holland. It reads like the work of a much more experiences and mature hand. At 240 pages, it’s a modest-sized book, and Holland might have normally been forgiven for writing a much longer work, taking into account the precise cultural and historical setting for the story. The novel is set in Moscow (primarily) at the end of the 1930s during the years of the Stalin purges and show trials, amongst whose victims were many writers, artists and intellectuals. The central character, Pavel, is an archivist at the Lubyanka Prison, charged with cataloguing (and ultimately incinerating) the works of writers who have been denounced and arrested. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what happens, but I admired the way that the story wears its context very lightly. The setting is entirely realistic and believable, but Holland does not burden us with detailed descriptions of Moscow and the unfolding history (which could have added at least another 100 pages to the book). Instead the detail resides in every conversation between and actions of the carefully drawn characters, so that by the end we feel we know more about the cultural setting of the story than if we had waded through 500 pages of history.
Apart from the occasional use of American English in some of the dialogue (which betrays the author’s nationality), this feels much more like a European novel and an American one. It has an air of ‘authenticity’ about it – which, I suppose, is what I mean about it seeming like the work of a more mature and assured writer. In this sense, I thought this was a magnificent piece of writing.