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Linda Holeman.
Linda Holeman.

Book review

Serfs up: A novel of angst in 19th-century Russia Add to ...

  • Title The Lost Souls of Angelkov
  • Author Linda Holeman
  • Publisher Random House Canada
  • Pages 538
  • Price $22.95

The Lost Souls of Angelkov is Linda Holeman’s fifth historical novel, and as the title suggests, it’s full of angst. Holeman kicks it with a jolt: Ten-year-old Misha is kidnapped.The place is Russia, and the year is 1861, so the characters, no matter their station in life, are flung into the immense social changes of the time, the central one being the emancipation of the serfs. In all cases, characters are products of their environment, and it’s a brutal one for most.

Misha’s parents are incredibly wealthy nobility. Angelkov, which Count Konstantin Mitlovsky renamed for his beautiful (and much younger) second wife, Antonina, is an enormous estate with a fleet of servants to meet the needs of the Mitlovsky family, all three of them. Holeman does a superb job of dissecting the class tensions and the various ways in which people are caught in circumstances beyond their control. She also shows how they harm themselves and others with grievously bad decisions.

Used to having his own way, the Count refuses to take the advice of others or follow directions, and he pays for his lack of humility by endangering his son. The Countess copes with life by slugging back vodka. The tragedy of her life, apart from her son’s abduction, is her lack of freedom. She loves music and would have pursued the piano in a professional capacity, but that was not an option for any woman of the time. Instead she is married off to Konstantin because of his wealth and her family’s declining fortunes.

Also, her mother, Princess Olonova, desires no competition from her daughter: “She was more concerned that the girl, although not conventionally beautiful, had a certain charm, and that comparisons would inevitably be drawn between a beauty past its prime and one coming into full flower.” The Princess is busy with affairs, as is the Prince. The nobility enjoy luxury and pleasure while the country convulses in social upheaval. Once Misha is taken, Antonina is fixated on being reunited with him, and the material wealth she enjoys is meaningless.

Holeman uses flashbacks to reveal the pasts of the characters. Antonina’s sheltered childhood is cracked open a bit when she befriends the daughter of a village blacksmith. Her father puts that relationship to an end with dire results. Grisha, the steward of Angelkov, walks out of Siberia as a 15-year-old to pursue a better life after his father dies, and he becomes a key influence in Antonina’s adult life. Music is woven through the novel as Antonina teaches her son, a gifted musician, how to play the piano, but this activity infuriates Konstantin, who would rather his son spent time outside on horseback.

The novel details the sad lives of the serfs, who are controlled by the landowners. Even when the serfs are emancipated, they still have few choices. Women, whether rich or poor, tend to be valued in the currency of flesh as workers, sexual partners and mothers who continue a name. Obviously, it’s better to be rich, as the cage is gilded and contains plenty of food. But it’s soul-destroying to have such little control. Antonina scorns her mother’s choices in life while being intrigued and confused by sexual pleasure.

When characters do exert power, it’s almost always because of greed or jealousy. Desperation leads people to terrible actions, and the innocent suffer. Betrayal lies at the heart of the novel in all classes presented. Selfishness motivates the characters, and Holeman piles on the nastiness and tragedy as she creates and then brings together the various plot strands.

In general, the characters serve as pieces to move around in the plot. And plot is definitely the driving force of this novel, plot and local colour. The speed of the narrative at the beginning and end is quite breathless and exciting, but some judicious cutting would have focused the action in the vast middle. The prose is serviceable, while unremarkable. Holeman is at her best when she is letting the action rip, and while the plot twists may border on the fanciful, they are certainly entertaining.

Candace Fertile teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria.

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