I’m not sure I would have paid any attention to Small Acts of Kindness but for the sub title “A Tale of the First Russian Revolution” . My knowledge of 19th century Russian history doesn’t run deep but even I know there was a Revolution in 1917. What I hadn’t realised was that it had a predecessor in 1825. My curiosity was aroused.
The 1825 uprising forms the background to Jennifer Antill’s debut novel, the events seen through the eyes of one young man who hopes for an end to the inequalities he sees in Russian society.
Vasily Nikolayevich, also known as Count Belkin, comes from a wealthy family. Through his uncle (also a Count) and his patron (a Prince) he enjoys a life of privileges and connections. As the book opens, he is returning to St Petersburg from a tour of Europe where he honed his drawing and painting skills.
The plan now is for him to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and enter the diplomatic service. But Vasily is an impressionable and idealistic young man whose head is turned by ,talk of liberalism and change.
The plight of serfs is of particular concern to him. He sees how their lives are entirely dependent on the whim of their owners. Denied an education they were condemned to a life of drudgery or — in the case of the men — sent off to the army.
Vasily gets sucked into a group that wants to overturn the government. They want an end to the absolute power of the Tsar and for serfs to be treated more humanely. But the rebellion fails and the conspirators are executed or, like Vasily’s soldier friend Mikahil, are exiled to Siberia.
Only the rapid intervention of his uncle saves Vasily from the same fate. In a new role as a bureaucrat in a distant provincial town there is a chance he can rebuild his life.
Small Acts of Kindness is the kind of novel that could so easily get bogged down by historical facts. Jennifer Antill has extensive knowledge of Russia through her academic studies and extensive travel in the country. But she handles this knowledge with a light touch in the novel, providing the critical information about the social and political environment of Russia in 1925 mainly through dialogue rather than lengthy expositions.
We get a clear explanation of why the rebels wanted change and how the government reacted but the history never gets in the way of a story that is ultimately about love and redemption.
The character of Vasily is also handled well. We get a strong sense of his progression over the course of three years. He begins as a rather naive young man who much prefers hanging out with his servant in local taverns than attending balls. By the time we get to the end of the book in 1828 he has become more reflective and mature, recognising that there are other ways to affect change than outright rebellion.
I did think the narrative could have been written more tightly to give more variety in pace and I would have liked to have seen more development of the secondary characters. Maybe as Jennifer Antill develops as a writer she’ll feel more comfortable with both these aspects. Overall however Small Acts of Kindness was an engaging story that acts as a good introduction to Russian history and culture and is much easier to follow than some of the big names in Russian literature.
Small Acts of Kindness by Jennifer Antill was published by Unicorn Publishing Group in November 2022. My thanks go to the publishers and RandomBookTours for an advance copy in return for an honest review.
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