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February 14, 2012

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

Historical fiction is one of my groundless literary prejudices, so I must admit that Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace was not an immediate draw. But then I got to know Eva a bit and she’s lovely, plus her book’s reception has been so overwhelmingly positive, and having conquered Wolf Hall, I’m not afraid of anything anymore. So I decided to go for it, and I loved it.

That I would love it seemed a sure thing from the top of page 12 when I encountered the line, “My father was a bookbinder.” Another of my literary prejudices is that if you stick a bookbinder if your novel, I will adore it, and in particular if the narrative goes into the intricacies of bookbinding, the book as object, has characters who are readers, and has pivotal scenes taking place in libraries, imperial or otherwise. Everybody is reading in this novel– narrator Barbara’s young daughter leafs through old books looking for pictures of herself, Stachniak so perfectly articulating how children read to see their selves reflected. Her recently-crowned Catherine the Great takes care to keep her afternoons clear so she can read alone in her room (though imperial business threatens to interfere with this arrangement). Barbara herself achieves status in the imperial palace after a chance run-in with the Russian Chancellor in the library, gaining a new position reading aloud to the Crown Prince.

We see the 18th century Russian court through the eyes of Barbara, a Polish immigrant and orphan who is in Princess Elizabeth’s debt because her late- father the bookbinder had once repaired a tattered, treasured prayer book. Barbara is defined by her mutability, even down to her name: “Barbara, or Basienka, my mother called me. In Polish, as in Russian, a name has many transformations. It can expand or contract, sound official and hard or soft and playful. Its shifting shape can turn its bearer into a helpless child or a woman in charge. A lover or a lady, a friend or a foe./ In Russian, I became Varvana.”

Varvana begins working as a seamstress in the Winter Palace, a position for which she is horribly unsuited, but she has other skills, and these are noticed. She is enlisted by the Chancellor to become a “tongue”, one who reports on palace goings-on. She becomes closer to the Empress Elizabeth, and also to the Grand Duchess Catherine who arrives at the palace to marry the Crown-Prince, and soon it becomes unclear where her loyalties lie (or rather, she begins to develop loyalties where she should have none at all). Her unclear loyalties become evident to Empress Elizabeth as well, who marries Varvana off to a Palace Guard to be rid of her, but this doesn’t manage to sever her connection to Catherine. As Elizabeth gets frailer, the system of power becomes precarious, and Varvana must finally take a side, even if just for the purposes of self-preservation. But it’s more than that– she has come to care for and trust the Grand Duchess Catherine, who’s on the verge of becoming Catherine the Great. But is anyone really worthy of trust in the Winter Palace, where loyalties are as fluid as identities are? What will be the consequences of ceasing to be just a pair of eyes and ears, and attempting to live without fear as a real human being?

The historical details through the eyes of Barbara are made accessible and vivid, the latter point by the exquisiteness of Stachniak’s prose. (I kept highlighting passages I especially loved, like the part about the expanding names. I think my favourite line was, “Hope can be as brittle as a wishbone”.) The characters are made human, in particular by their presence in their bodies, which miscarry, get diseases and become disfigured over time. There are no stock characters here, which is saying something a book with so many characters, but Stachniak manages the right strokes to bring her people to life with a remarkably human complexity (in particular, Barbara’s husband, and how I admired the connection that grows up between them). The plot is riveting and makes every page-turn in this 400+ page book seem most worthwhile, and I loved the ending, how the narrator steps away from the tale of Catherine the Great, and we manage to see what we’ve always suspected: that Barbara has been the hero of her story all along.

4 thoughts on “The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak”

  1. Mary A. smith says:

    I loved this book! I had the great fortune to sign up for Bonnie Stern’s book club in December where the featured book was The Winter Palace. And the big treat was that we all met at Jamie Kennedy’s restaurant on Jan.9th to meet with the author, Eva, Bonnie Stern and have a delicious Russion inspired meal prepared by Jamie and his excellent staff. What made the book come alive for me was the fact that I had recently visited St. Petersburg while doing a Baltic cruise. To actually see the Summer palace, the Hermitage, which is the newer Winter Palace and the Peterhoff Gardens and it was an awesome experience, which I highly recommend to anyone who loves to travel. I garuantee you will love it! Thank you Eva for writing this wonderful story!

  2. alexis says:

    I’m prejudiced against historical fiction as well, and this makes me want to read it.

  3. JK says:

    I have a particular fondness for good Hist-Fic, though I find myself without time to read it much these days. I’ve had my eye on this one (especially given that my OAC history essay was Catherine the Great: Suitable Sobriquet?), but figured it would languish at the back of the line with all the rest, but perhaps after this review I’ll make it a higher priority. Thanks, Kerry!

    1. Kerry says:

      It’s smart, the writing is SO good, but it’s also a pleasure. Admittedly, its heft makes it look languishable, but you’d be sorry to let it wait. Enjoy!

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