James Meek has won several awards for his journalism and his fiction, but The People's Act Of Love is a singular departure from all that came before. It is a big Russian novel, written in English. Meek has upped the ante on such books as Cold Mountain and The March in bringing the reader his version of the unspeakable horror and brutality of war, the colder-than-cold winter, the cruelty and humanity of people in extremis.
It is 1919 in Yazyk, Siberia, far from anywhere. The war is waning, but its ravages remain. There is an uneasy detente between a group of Czech soldiers, marooned on the losing side and longing to go home, and a fanatical Christian sect that practices castration as a means of purifying themselves. One of their number is their leader, Balashov, married to a beautiful and restive photographer, Anna Petrovna, who has come to the village of Yazyk to raise her son, after learning of her husband's castration. Her fury knows no bounds. She gives herself to anyone who is interested as a means of shaming Balashov, and satisfying her own appetites.
Into this motley collection of people comes a stranger, Samarin, who says he has escaped from The White Garden, Russia's northernmost prison camp, a place of unbelievable barbarism. Shortly after his arrival, the village shaman, possessed of a third eye and an albino sidekick, is found murdered. Suspicion falls immediately on Samarin. In successive chapters, Meek has each person or faction tell his or her story. Samarin, a revolutionary, charismatic visionary, every bit as zealous as the castrates, tells of his escape. Matula, the crazy, cocaine-snorting leader of the Czechs, doesn't really want to go home, so he prevents his soldiers from leaving. Mutz, a sensible sort, quite taken with Anna, dreams of home and keeps hope alive among his soldiers. Balashov tells of what led him to castrate himself.
The hopes, wishes, dreams, and illusions of all these people converge in Meek's novel. He shows man as pure, base, megalomaniacal, rational, intelligent, incredibly stupid--every aspect of humanity is examined, especially compassion. Despite the horrid excesses of war--and peace--Meek, in their telling, weaves a completely believable story of what happens to people who are not just at the margins of the world, but at the edge of their ability to understand themselves and the world around them. (The people's act of love, by the way, has nothing to do with love: it is cannibalism.) Don't miss this extraordinary novel; it is hugely deep and satisfying. --Valerie Ryan