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Clarion Rating: 4 out of 5
Absorbing, memorable, and moving, Echo of the Past is a fully imagined tale of lives caught in the jaws of history.The tragic and entwined histories of twentieth-century Russia and Germany are brought poignantly to life in in Polina Roussou’s slim but affecting novel, Echo of the Past.
After a brief prologue set in the present, the story begins in earnest, opening on thirteen-year-old Ben Razin, a captive in a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Russia. The prison is a feeder camp that supplies Nazi doctors with living subjects for medical experimentation, and death by selection is the order of the day.
Ben survives despite the harrowing odds, but the hidden strands of his story affect his entire life. From this beginning, the story moves back in time, spanning events from WWI and the Russian Revolution through WWII to the present, and moving the narrative from Russia to Germany and back again.
As the story unfolds, Ben ceases to be the story’s sole focal point. The cast expands to include past, present, and future generations of the family Ben lost in the war, as well as wives, teachers, colleagues, and friends. This closely connected group of characters is the heart of the story, and it is through their experiences that the horrors of war, fascism, and communism are vividly brought to life.
Each character is deftly and realistically portrayed, and their modest longings—for friendship, sufficient food, and freedom from being informed on or sent to a gulag—are so ordinary, they create a deeper impression of totalitarianism’s brutality than any battlefield scene could.
An outstanding feature of the book is the way characters are woven into the story before they are actually introduced, then developed through their thoughts and actions, rather than through intrusive descriptions. Their presence seems organic to the book, rather than stage-managed in service of the plot, lending an unusually realistic edge to events that might otherwise seem part of a remote and unfathomable past.
Adding to the sense of realism is the writing style, which is deceptively simple and devoid of both melodrama and literary flourishes. This leaves space for each character’s story to shine through, creating emotional impact without over-dramatizing. The reading pace is swift and absorbing because true curiosity about the characters’ fates has been developed.
The focus shifts from one group of characters to another then doubles back to brush in details previously missing, but the true plot remains obscure until late in the book. When it surfaces, the book feels somewhat rushed, and the denouement is improbable and murky despite its explanation. This hardly matters, as the overarching story is little more than a framework for the stories of the characters whose smaller fates are far more significant.
Absorbing, memorable, and moving, Echo of the Past is a fully imagined tale of lives caught in the jaws of history
Echo of the Past by Polina Roussou
Dr Galina Daraganova
Research FellowHonorary Melbourne University Fellow
Australian Institute of Family Studies
I was astounded by this book. This is one of the few books that you cannot put down until you've read till the very last page. The book is well researched, intelligently written and emotionally stimulating. It reads like a fast paced action novel and the mood of dread, fear and hope are touchingly communicated to the reader. The plot is intriguing and twisted. It reads like a puzzle that you put together only at the very end. It gives you a chill when you think about choices and sacrifices people make when their loved ones belong to fighting countries.
It is a rewarding read and an adventure from the beginning.
Echo of the Past by Polina Roussou
Reviewed by M. J. Bedewi, writer, Melbourne, Vic
The twisting plot masterfully creates an underlying sense of mystery to reveal how the pent up passions of individuals, caught in the devastation of a war ravaged Europe, must face the often cruel hand of serendipity.
It is a well created story that weaves itself through a bygone era to resolute with universal truths and astonishing realizations. You may want to read it twice.
From Michael Hasofer,2008
COMMENTS ON “ECHO OF THE PAST”
I, like many others I know, was unable to let go of this book once I started reading it until I finished. I felt like I was reading one of the best Agatha Christie mysteries. The mystery is set forward right at the beginning in a powerfully dramatic scene that however reveals nothing. The clues are skilfully introduced one after the other as the tragedy unfolds. Interwoven with the main thread of the story are character descriptions, romantic episodes and beautiful nature excursions. They sustain the reader’s interest throughout the book. And the unexpected revelation comes, in classical tradition, right at the end.
But of course what is unique about this book is not so much its structure but the fact that, unlike most classical mystery works, the criminal actions that eventually lead to the final disaster are not carried out by evil individuals but by evil states. It is they, the Nazi regime that ruled Germany for twelve years and the Stalinist regime that ruled the Soviet Union for seventy years, which drive all the action, brutalizing and ultimately killing innocent citizens. It is they who leave no choice to their innocent victims but to lie, to commit perjury, to deceive their closest family and friends and eventually to even plan and commit murder.
The book is high class entertainment for discerning readers, but at the same time it is one of the strongest, most effective and persuasive indictments of the evil dictatorial regimes that ruled Germany and the Soviet Union that I have ever read.