Book review: Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett

Midnight in St Petersburg
Midnight in St Petersburg

Anyone who says love and politics don’t mix should pick up a copy of Midnight in St Petersburg, Vanora Bennett’s classy new novel.

In an action and passion-packed story set during the revolutionary fervour of Russia’s imperial capital city, those two uncomfortable bedfellows form a marriage made in historical thriller heaven.

Bennett found inspiration in her own great uncle, Horace Wallick, who lived through the Russian Revolution in St Petersburg for this exciting, vivid and sumptuously romantic epic featuring a young Jewish woman fighting for survival in a country torn apart by violence and anarchy.

Harnessing her experiences of living and working in Russia and through hours of meticulous research, Bennett takes us to the dangerous heart of a country in turmoil and into the homes and salons of some of the revolution’s leading players.

From the charismatic Siberian peasant Father Grigory Rasputin, whose influence on the Tsar’s family would help precipitate revolution, and the wealthy nobleman Felix Youssoupoff who hatched a notorious murder plot, to ordinary Russians struggling to survive momentous upheaval, this is a story of passion and politics to thrill and enchant.

After witnessing the murder of Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin in a Kiev theatre and fearing another pogrom against the Jewish population, orphan Inna Feldman flees to St Petersburg to take refuge with distant relative Yasha Kagar.

On the train south she is befriended by fellow traveller, Father Grigory, who pledges his help if she should ever need it and later introduces her to Felix Youssoupoff and the archetypal Englishman Horace Wallick, an artist for illustrious royal jewellers Fabergé.

What she doesn’t yet know is that hot-headed, handsome, half-cousin Yasha is a fledgling revolutionary whose spare time is spent distributing inflammatory leaflets which could put them both in mortal danger.

Yasha works for the flamboyant Leman family and musician Inna is apprenticed into their violin-making workshop. With her exotic looks and talents, she feels instantly at home in their bohemian circle of friends.

As Inna becomes infatuated with the brooding, perilously attractive Yasha and as steady, dependable, loyal Horace finds Inna increasingly desirable, war breaks out and society begins to fracture.

With the revolution fast descending into chaos and blood-letting, a commission to repair a priceless Stradivarius violin offers Inna a means of escape. But which man will she take with her? Can she choose between her heart and her head? And is it already too late to get out of St Petersburg?

Lush, romantic and brimming with suspense, Midnight in St Petersburg explores the social, cultural and political extremes of early 20th century Russia as well as delivering an intelligent and beautifully written love story.

A fascinating and enjoyable historical novel...

(Century, paperback, £12.99)