It is 1979 and young chess prodigy Aleksandr Bezetov moves to Leningrad starting to win his way ever closer to being declared the world chess champion even as he unintentionally joins a small dissident political group devoted to exposing the abuses of the Communist government. He treads a thin line between being worthy of adulation and of being arrested (or worse) as far as the government is concerned.
Twenty-five years later, American Irina Ellison, who once watched Bezetov's chess matches on tv with her father, is looking for answers to how she should live her life. She watched her vibrant, intelligent father die a slow and horrifying death due to Huntington's Disease and she knows that she carries the same genetic ticking time bomb. She hasn't allowed herself to develop any close relationships with others, dreading the day she first manifests the jerking characteristic of the disease.
And then Irina finds the carbon of a letter from her father addressed to Bezetov at the height of his career asking the improbable question of how to continue to play a game in the face of certain defeat. There is a non-answer from an unknown woman but no acknowledgement of the letter from Bezetov and so Irina decides that she is going to go to Russia and find the answer herself, even if it will be difficult to secure a meeting with Bezetov, who is now running a presidential campaign in opposition to Putin, having lost his chess title to IBM's computer many years prior.
As these two troubled and lost souls swirl around each other, with Irina ultimately coming to work for Bezetov's campaign, there is a continual exploration of the necessity and desirability of pursuing lost causes. Irina tells her own story in first person while Aleksandr's tale is told in the third person omniscient. This makes the story slightly more Irina's than Aleksandr's. Both characters though are very introspective and suffer from disappointment. Irina's manifests itself as a sort of aimlessness while Aleksandr's comes out as a dogged need to thrust himself into the political spotlight no matter that he fully expects to lose the election and perhaps be assassinated as well. Both characters, despite their obvious parallels, are very different, almost equal and opposite sides of the coin of life. How they each choose to move forward despite the fact that the endgame will certainly not be theirs is fascinating to watch.
The narrative itself is slightly depressing but the writing is gorgeous. DuBois has drawn a cold, unforgiving, and secretive place in Leningrad/St. Petersburg, imbuing it with an appropriate sense of tired menace. Setting here accurately reflects the internal struggles of the trapped characters. And while Aleksandr and Irina may have seperately found the way to persevere in the face of truly insurmountable odds, they are joyless in their discoveries. Perhaps that, ultimately, is the question that Irina should have asked: How to go on in the face of certain defeat but to still find happiness or at least satisfaction in the game. DuBois is a very talented writer and the book is one that will haunt me for some time but it definitely exudes an air of gloom, greyness, and resignation.
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Thanks to The Dial Press for sending me a copy of the book for review. This review is part of a TLC Book Tour