Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, reviewed by Charlene Jones

Random House Canada, 512 pages, trade paperback $19.95; ebook $12.99; available here.

Here’s Russia, a land of, well, so much land, uncompromising weather, eleven time zones and over one hundred different languages. Russia contains enough underground resource, gold, uranium, natural gas and more, to power the entire world...except her wealth remains captured below forty feet of permafrost.
       The contradictions of this exotic realm, her extraordinary and unattainable wealth, the mysticism that remains shrouded in ignorant superstition, the inheritance of strict religion and bloody revolution emerge as central themes through Eva Stachniak’s breathtaking novel, The Winter Palace.     
      From the seeming endlessness of Russia and her history, Stachniak tunnels our vision down to a literal peep hole, down to the eyes and ears of her fictional protagonist Varvara, or Barbara. Beginning in the way of the best fairy tale characters, Barbara’s life starts in a foreign place, Poland and unfolds when her parents emigrate to the hoped for better life in that land of rumor and glory, Russia. As the child of nearly, and then really, impoverished parents, Barbara’s only chance for a life beyond the streets rests in the hands of the empress of this land, Empress Elizabeth, sole living child of the dynamic and much loved Peter the Great.
     The Empress’s tossed off promise she made to Barbara’s dying father, constitutes the thread between fiction and fact: the fictional, desperate Barbara now serves as the chronicler of the factual life of Empress Elizabeth whose own desperation lies in that necessity of all Royals: how to preserve the lineage.
     Empress Elizabeth bore no children herself but decided on her nephew as the next emperor, and then dissolves his few virtues by spoiling him almost into idiocy. She renames the boy Peter, superstitiously hoping to grow the great qualities and strong character of her own father, the boy’s grandfather, Peter the Great.
Eva Stachniak was born in Wrocław, Poland, 
and came to Canada in 1981. She lives in Toronto.
       This attempt is an abysmal failure; however by ignoring what is obvious, the empress remains within her own version of the truth, a version as fantastic and imaginative as the fabulous balls, extraordinary clothes woven with jewels and gold, the lavish dinners, ostentatious state ceremonies all documented in sumptuous detail by Barbara’s ever watchful eyes, ever open ears.
         In her search for a suitable match for the would be next ruler of Russia, Empress Elizabeth calls to court a plain, seemingly unremarkable Prussian child, a daughter of down-on-their-luck parents of minor nobility.
         Sophie, her given name, arrives eager to secure her family a place at the dazzling court, in the astonishingly rich palace, by attracting the disinterested young Peter and by placating the whims and furies of the Empress Elizabeth herself. She succeeds to the extent that Elizabeth renames her “Katrina” and converts her to Elizabeth's own religion.
      Katrina will be Catherine the Great. This novel, with its lush details of the ermine throws and fox blankets, the trinkets of jewels worth more than a house costs now, the dinners of outrageous proportions and exotic courses, through its skillful creator, Stachniak, leaves an impression of gold and glitter, glorious to behold and useless in the day to day.
      One image from the early pages of the book captures much of its theme. Sophie and Peter under command by the empress visit the Kunstcamera Museum, a holding place of malformed fetuses created by the famed Peter the Great to exemplify his understanding of how the moods and emotions of the mother supposedly affect the body of her unborn.  Stachniak uses the place to describe to the reader the theme that will carry Barbara through her trials, that will mark the despair of the Empress Elizabeth, that will forge chains in the life of Catherine the Great: how a mother in her attitudes and feelings, shapes the unborn life of the future.
      Mother Russia, this land is called by her people. And like the land with its natural resources captive, frozen beneath her soil, the Empress Elizabeth’s own instability left her country’s next in line susceptible to deformation. The continuation of this story in Stachniak’s upcoming book The Empress of Night, to be released in March 2014, promises to be another must read, as is The Winter Palace. Don’t miss either one.  

Charlene Jones’ poetry has most recently appeared on Commuterlit. She also writes for her radio program Off the Top with Whistle Radio, 102.7 fm (aired every second Tuesday from 3:00 to 3:30 p.m.) You can see Charlene perform her poetry and prose at Linda Stitt's inimitable monthly salon at Portobello Restaurant and Bar the first Saturday every month in Toronto. Charlene blogs at

See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Barrie, Brampton, Bolton, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Stouffville, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Algoma, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

1 comment:

  1. Good summary! Hard to narrow down the epic scenes & schemes & themes in this one. Good story. Good writing. Just finished reading this recently and my library copy was 440pgs. Best lines were near the end ... "You never speak of people" says a bookseller to Barbara. She replies "I don't have to lie". I love the simple exhaustion of the main character, having to hold up her protective facade for so long. Also, although I understand the theme of mothers shaping their unborn, my impression was that Peter went to the museum due to his tutor's request, and asked if Barbara could come along (since she read to him daily), not Sophie. The tutor was trying to impress on Peter, that his grandfather gathered these displays to allow his people to study the science of the deformities, not the superstition. Peter the Great was unlike his daughter Empress Elizabeth in this way, since she was terrified of superstition and the threats of the unknown, which is why her entire reign was shrouded in secrecy, and her power in the deceptions she unearthed. Either way, I have my name down at the library for the March2014 release. I am not at all into politics or history, and waded through this epic novel at light speed. The mark of a great writer. My mouth watered at the description of place, as always. No one will be disappointed with this one, but a hundred pages could be cut off the book just from the russian names of people and places alone! The frequent repeats of seven word royal titles were my only complaint. F.H.Lee


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