Tomorrow's Books: Book Reviews

ALICE IN EXILE

Piers Paul Read

     Opening some books is like being ushered aboard the Orient Express: you can tell that the author is out to impress you, waving you off with all the razzmatazz at his command.  Piers Paul Read, on the other hand, launches into his narrative without flourishes or fuss, whisking you into another world as easily as if you had stepped onto the London Underground.  It may seem humdrum, but don’t be deceived: this is an enthralling journey.
     Read’s heroine, Alice Fry, is a free-thinking woman who falls in love with the aristocratic Edward Cobb on the eve of the First World War.  Edward proposes marriage, but when Alice’s father, a radical publisher, is prosecuted for obscenity, Edward finds his political ambitions compromised, and the wedding is called off.
     Alice, heartbroken and secretly expecting a child, is rescued by Baron Rettenberg – a married man and known philanderer – who offers her a job as a governess on his estate in Russia.  There the sexual tension grows – but so does the political danger, as first war and then revolution threatens the Baron’s household.  Meanwhile, Edward sets out in search of Alice, desperate to make amends.
     Much of the book’s fascination lies in the strange reversals of the characters’ roles.  In England, Alice and her left-wing views are considered beyond the pale by Edward’s upper-class relations; in Russia, she finds herself fleeing for her life as a bourgeois lackey of the aristocracy.  Edward’s experiences in the trenches leave him repelled by the political high life he once sought, while the book’s most conventional character is exiled to Kenya after a scandalous divorce.
     Alice in Exile is so packed with incident that, in another writer’s hands, it could have been four times the length.  But Read is a master of economy: he can sketch half a dozen characters in a single page of dialogue, and explain a complex political situation lucidly in a paragraph. 
     The result is a slimline Dr Zhivago: there are times when you wish that Read would allow himself some more extensive descriptive passages, but his account of the Russian Revolution has a haunting vividness which few authors could match. 


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