Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Booker Review: The People's Act of Love, James Meek

I decided to kick off my Booker longlist reading with one of the lesser-known contenders, Guardian foreign correspondent James Meek's The People's Act of Love. The U.K. press has been buzzing about this book for a couple of weeks now, and it has received high praise from a number of big name reviewers. I'm pleased to report the acclaim is more than justified: Meek's novel is something very special, and hopefully it will at least make the short list.

Siberia, 1919. A Czech army unit is stranded in the isolated town of Yazyk, cut off from home by the Red Army. Their captain, Matula, rules over his little patch of taiga with the deranged caprice of a Major Major or Colonel Kurtz. The town is also home to a secretive Christian sect, and a beautiful war widow, whose connection to the sect, and relationship with the principled Czech Lieutenant Mutz, threatens the town's uneasy stability. Into this frozen world of delusion and violence stumbles Samarin, an escaped political prisoner. When a Tungus shaman, held captive by Matula, is murdered, blame immediately falls on the newcomer. Samarin, however, has a strange story to tell. He is being followed, he says, by a fellow escapee called the Mohican, who has survived the journey south by eating human flesh. With the Red Army closing in, Matula baying for Mutz's blood, and a cannibal on the loose, the scene is set for a good deal of unpleasantness, with the outcome far from certain.

It is difficult, in such a brief synopsis, to convey the combination of deadly seriousness and humour, action and reflection, that comprise The People's Act of Love. Meek's sense of narrative drive, and the way he builds character and theme by patiently, almost teasingly, sewing together loose strands of detail, is admirable . The telling is disjointed, fitful, but this makes the book suspenseful rather than frustrating. The setting - isolated not only in space, but also in time - allows Meek to avoid superficial philosophising, and grapple instead with some very deep and disturbing issues. Having only just finished reading the book, I'm still thinking it through (and given all the essay-related shit swimming around in my brain, probably not thinking it through particularly well). I expect I will be reading The People's Act of Love again, sometime. That in itself is a not inconsiderable endorsement of its quality.

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