A Review of
The Light and the Dark: A Novel
Reviewed by Meghan Florian
Those readers who appreciate the great Russian novelists of the past cannot, I would argue, deny that these author’s works are often a vast undertaking. In length, number of characters, variations of names, depth of thought, and reflection on the human condition as the writer understands it — authors such as Fyodor Dostoevsky ask a great deal of their readers (just as they did of themselves as writers, it seems to me). Those who are willing to sit with such works, to read slowly and ponder the narrative long after they’ve gone cover to cover with the book itself, can never quite be sure what they’ll find.
Years ago, when I had tried – and failed – to read The Brothers Karamazov three times, I liked to joke about my sneaking suspicion that the only reason so many of my friends claimed it as their favorite book was to prove that they had read it. On my fourth attempt, I made it to the end. Finally, I understood, or began to understand, what the fuss was about.
Mikhail Shishkin, whose latest novel The Light and the Dark was released in english this year (translated by Andrew Bromfield) sits in this tradition. The Guardian has hailed him as “Russia’s greatest living novelist,” and he has been compared to writers as varied as Ian McEwan and Dostoevsky himself. Though this new novel is half the length of most of Dostoevsky’s well-known tomes,The Light and the Dark carries on that tradition brilliantly. Does this mean the novel moves slowly at times? By all means. But it is worth it in the end.
In 2012 Shishkin refused to participate in the Russian delegation to the 2012 BookExpo in protest of government corruption. This fact in and of itself begins to tell us something about Shishkin as an author, namely that he is an writer connected with world, and his art such as it is reflects, ponders, and challenges what we know of the human condition. He is concerned with love, with life, but also with death, violence, and human relationships within a bounded temporal world.
Composed of letters between two young lovers, Vovka and Sashka, this epistolary novel is about more than romance. Indeed, after the opening letters the tone shifts dramatically — though love continues to be a theme throughout their notes to one another, across time and distance. They age, both literally as time passes, and in less calculable ways, as life takes its toll on each. Vovka, away at war, during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and Sashka going on at home, without him, trying to live her life but undeniably connected to him.