Joseph Stalin “never spoke or wrote” about the two months he spent in London in the spring of 1907 while attending the 5th Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, Alasdair Lees said in The Daily Telegraph. Stephan May, whose sixth novel is an “openly made-up” retelling of those “few overlooked weeks”, enters this “psychological opening”.
It begins when a 29-year-old Stalin – then known by his nickname Koba – lands in Harwich, fresh from “a campaign of terror and banditry” in his native Georgia. In London he lives in a flophouse in Stepney, while better-off participants – including Lenin – lodge in Bloomsbury. May’s Stalin is a “character of fascinating contradictions” – an “idealist and thug” – and the novel is a “captivating thought experiment”.
Unfortunately, it often falls “disappointingly flat,” Simon Baker said in Literary review. There are ‘equal descriptions’ of London’s ‘horrible’ pubs and May makes too much use of summaries. Although the novel has what it takes to be an “exciting political thriller”, it is not convincing enough to really let May’s story grow.
Sandstone 288 p. £8.99; The bookstore of the week £6.99
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