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March 26, 2021

Constant Nobody, by Michelle Butler Hallett

I loved this book. It was 438 pages long and demanded a lot of my attention, but I was so sorry when it ended (even though the ending was perfect!), because to read Constant Nobody, Michelle Butler Hallett’s novel set in 1937 Moscow against the backdrop of Stalinist purges when nobody could be trusted, is to just be so engrossed by the language, atmosphere, and plot.

And oh, and such plot—here’s how it goes. NKVD Agent Kostya, in the Basque region of Spain (there to do away with anti-Stalinist Communists) encounters a nurse who is actually British agent Temerity West who delivers the novel’s remarkable first line: “—Swallow each and every one, or your cock will fall off.” She’s given him pills to treat his gonorrhea, and he’s actually there to kill the doctor who works at the clinic, but he’s away, and a rapport grows up between the two, both of them polyglots. They pass a night together, chastely, recounting Russian fairy tales they both know because Temerity’s mother was Russian—and then when things come to a head the next day, Kostya lets her escape.

Which seems like something of very little consequence, but then everything has consequence in 1937 USSR, the very system a prison in which no one can be trusted and everybody fears for their life. Where punishment is arbitrary and can arrive at any moment, everyone just waiting for that knock on the door. Even Kostya, an NKVD officer who you’d imagine might be impervious to such threats, particularly as his adopted father is a powerful official in the agency. But Kostya is just as helpless as everybody else when he once again encounters Temerity West in a Moscow cell, not just to his feelings for this woman, but even still, he permits her escape a second time. A third seemingly random event bringing them together again, and now their fates are inextricably linked—Temerity is hiding out in Kostya’s flat, and it’s hard to envision a scenario in which this could possibly end well.

Temerity West is wonderful, akin to my favourite, Lane Winslow, their backgrounds uncannily similar, though of course Constant Nobody is less conspicuously delightful—except that it kind of is? Even amid the venereal disease and executions—this novel is brutal; there’s an awful lot of blood—there is a playful humour at work. And teacups! “Kostya raised his eyebrows in sympathetic dismay. How far might this hostility to teacups go? Would one’s loyalty be tested by tea? Could a man call himself Soviet if he preferred a cup and saucer? Samovar, zavarka and podstakannik: signals of orthodoxy? In these difficult days, might a man’s choice of how to drink his tea become the rubric which parted innocence from guilt?/ It’s just tea, Kostya wanted to say./ He knew better.”

There is a fascinating tension throughout the book—who is trustworthy? What does it mean to be loyal? And loyal to what? Temerity West is plucky as you like (and I like!) but Kostya is a flawed, troubled man. His adopted father too managing to gain the reader’s sympathy, although he does mighty little to deserve it, and I admire Butler Hallett’s ability to complicate our connections to these fictional people. Is Kostya admirable? Depends on your perspective. And will you root for him? Well, I did, in spite of my better instincts, and when the true extent of his harm is made clear later in the novel, I was gutted, but mostly because I felt how much it had surely broken this man to be the person he’d become. Butler Hallett complicates too our simple condemnation of people who are “just following orders” in an evil regime, where moral compasses have lost their poles, are spinning wildly really, where everyday life is a prison of the mind.

What a mash-up—Constant Nobody is a spy novel, a romance of sorts, historical fiction, a literary feat. It’s gripping, gorgeous, and unforgettable.

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