The Unreliable People by Rosetta Allan (Penguin Random House, 2019), 352 pp., $38
In the last two decades New Zealand writers who have explored settings outside New Zealand include Elizabeth Knox with her 1998 The Vintner’s Luck set in France, Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip, set in Papua New Guinea and, more recently, Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize-winning novel The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey, which takes place in Nazi Germany. Rosetta Allan’s second novel, The Unreliable People, immerses the reader in the world of 1930s Soviet Russia and, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in 1990s St Petersburg.
Allan’s gripping first chapter opens in 1974 when we encounter the mysterious Katerina who arrives in Soviet Kazakhstan to abduct a child, Antonina, to take to Vladivostok. Interspersed in the narrative are poignant flashbacks and memories of Katerina’s own transportation and enforced exile in the 1930s. Katerina is of Koryo-saram descent. Koreans had lived in Russia since the nineteenth century. However, during the 1930s, Josef Stalin labelled ethnic Koreans ‘the unreliable people’ and forcibly expelled them to eastern Russia in ‘ghost trains’, where thousands perished. So, who is this woman Katerina and why does Antonina go with her? These are key questions, the answers to which will be revealed by the novel’s close.
Forward to 1990s St Petersburg and we encounter Antonina who is now in her twenties. She has been raised in the Koryo-saram community in Kazakstan, where, as Allan writes, ‘The world of imagination is too strong inside her mind. Fairy tales that blur the line between what’s real and what’s not. Snow people and crow kings. Rice farmers and Scythian warriors.’ Antonina is an aspiring artist, using art as a means of expressing and exploring identity, of questioning authority and of pushing boundaries. Allan depicts the day-to-day abuse that Antonina experiences in St Petersburg. With her dark hair and Korean features she is an a-stereotypical Russian, an outsider. She is not Russian, Korean or Kazakh, and much of the novel is an exploration of her complex identity and a search for where she fits in. There is the sense that until Antonina knows who she is, she can never be a fully realised artist and individual.
Allan’s evocation of place is particularly vivid and there are some wonderful descriptions of St Petersburg, as in these three passages:
Antonina takes [Tatyana] by the arm, and they make their way down Pushkinskaya Street, Tatyana on the inside, like a gentleman protecting a lady from falling icicles that drop from the guttering from time to time. Neglected baroque-style apartments line the street with thick stone in varying clay-coloured hues, darkened by dampness and decades of exhaust fumes.
There is a broken path through the square, but no lighting other than the luminosity of thin spring snow that clings to the edges, and the gauzy purple of early dawn – night starting to peel away as Antonina can make out the edges of the world around her, in a two-dimensional way at least.
By the time she reaches the factory, Antonina is relieved not to be working. It’s a mellow evening, and Vladimir has his room open. Semyon strums his guitar in the corner, humming as if to himself, but his tunes pour through the room, lulling the small gathering into a quiet, reflective mood. The sun is going down. The colours stretch, casting orange and red blooms that follow a neat line across walls and up towards the soaring ceiling where the colours get tangled with the metal rafters and cobwebs.
Allan also uses the striking physicality and history of the city to figuratively describe the relationship between Antonina and her art teacher Makar:
Makar likes the fullness of her mouth, or he used to when they were allowed to see each other. Back when he was still a student. Now he’s a teacher, and the story of their relationship has sunk away into the boggy marsh that harbours the bones of slaves beneath their city. Sometimes she imagines she can hear the bones of the dead moving around beneath the granite foundation blocks, tapping against the old oak piles that hold up the city, but that’s probably just the symptom of a lonely bed.
The contrast between Antonina’s childhood in Kazakstan and her current life in St Petersburg is a carefully rendered means of exploring identity and her relationships with others, particularly her friends Tatyana and Konstantin. Antonina is an imaginative, strong, uncompromising and determined character. However, at times, particularly in the lead-up to her final-year art show in St Petersburg, the pace slows, and it veers slightly off course with events surrounding Konstantin. I understand the focus of the novel is Antonina and her coming to terms with who she is, but as a reader I was particularly drawn to Katerina and would have liked more of her and her experience of 1930s Russia. Ultimately, I feel this would have made the denouement more poignant.
The Unreliable People is a thoroughly researched vivid evocation of a time in European history with which many readers may not be familiar. It is ambitious in its scope and subject matter and as such is a notable addition to recent fiction explored by New Zealander writers in non-New Zealand settings.
MAJELLA CULLINANE writes poetry and fiction. She published her second poetry collection, Whisper of a Crow’s Wing (Otago University Press and Salmon Publishing) in 2018. Her debut novel The Life of De’Ath (Steele Roberts, 2018) was longlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Fiction. She recently completed a PhD in Creative Practice at the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Otago.