Thursday, November 17, 2011

She Lover of Death (Boris Akunin)

I've had this on my Amazon wishlist for a few years now but just bought it last September, not realizing that 1) Boris Akunin also wrote the Sister Pelagia series that I often see in local stores; 2) She Lover of Death is part of a different series; and 3) I wasn't starting where I should.

Despite my ignorance, there were plenty of things that I liked about She Lover of Death. In turn of the century Russia, suicides seem like all the rage. They seem to stem from a suicide club called the 'Lovers of Death,' which attracts the young and innocent Masha Mironova, who renames herself Columbine when she moves to the capitol from her provincial hometown, in pursuit of a boy. But it is not love that awaits her in Moscow but death. Her infatuation pushes her to join the suicide club but it is her desire for change and transformation that urges her to stay. The club operates with a limited membership, with new members only inducted after one has left their circle. The leader of the Lovers is the enigmatic Prospero, a much older man who makes the impressionable Columbine forget about her former infatuation. She is quickly initiated into the ways of the club: the Lovers read poems about Lady Death and hold seances, where their medium Ophelia announces whom Death has chosen next to be her bridegroom (or bride, as in the case of the female members). As a rule, that member must encounter three signs before the hour of his suicide, and so far all of them have seemed to go readily to their early graves leaving behind their macabre poetry. But Lavr Zhemailo, a reporter for the Moscow Courier, manages to sniff out this practice, but he's not the only one interested in finding out more about the club. Erast Fandorin, master of disguise and infiltration, is convinced there is more to this than mere suicide.

I like how there are different perspectives at work in the narrative: Columbine's diary, Zhemailo's newspaper articles and commentaries, ZZ's agents' reports, and even the Lovers' poems. They added layers to what I thought would have been an otherwise dry and straightforward mystery. I wish I had known more about Erast Fandorin (or as he was known in this novel, Prince Genji or Erast Petrovich Neimless). I can only blame myself for not doing my research. Because this title comes in the middle of the series, the author already supposes that the reader knows a lot about Erast Fandorin, and Mr Akunin focuses on the character Columbine instead. Here, I can only see glimpses of the charm and the methods that have made Fandorin into a popular detective but I'd readily chalk this up to my failure as a reader rather than to any inadequacies in the writing. There are references made here to Fandorin's incredible luck, which piqued my interest enough to read the earlier titles.

But Columbine's story is far from disappointing. Her character intrigued me, and her motivations, no matter how strange they felt to me, mix naivete with passion. In her, the reader sees a character seduced by Death as an ideal, an end to suffering, an end to a life of being ordinary. I always welcome reading books that give me unexpected insight into something very contrary to what I think, and despite my desire for a richer mystery, I found She Lover of Death still worth my while.

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