I’m going to start this review by saying right away that I was hooked on Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace from its very first page. The story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power, told by an orphan who became a spy in the old Empress’s court, is one full of old-fashioned mystery and intrigue. Our narrator, Varvara, begins by telling us: “I knew of hollowed books, trunks with hollowed bottoms, and the meanders of secret corridors. I knew how to open hidden drawers in your escritoire, how to unseal your letter and make you think that no one had touched it. If I had been in your room, I left the hair around your lock the way you had tied it. If you trusted the silence of the night, I had overheard your secrets.”
There is a great sense of style in Stachniak’s writing – Varvara’s narrative has an irresistibly conspiratorial air and the author also has a great talent for description. She paints the sights and sounds of Imperial Russia vividly – its colours, its smells, its atmosphere, its secrets. The life of a spy, a tongue, is one in which nothing is certain and no one is to be trusted entirely. Fortunes change, families rise and fall, snubs and humiliations are avenged and loyalty must be repaid, sometimes for fear of the consequences. How could you not be drawn in to the drama of it? How could you not root for Varvara, the orphaned daughter of a Polish bookbinder, whose sharp mind and clear understanding of the need to make herself indispensable are all that keep her from destitution.
When her mother dies of cholera, and her father follows her to the grave shortly after, penniless Varvara can expect little mercy, but when she is accepted as a servant in the Imperial household as a favour to her father, she makes more use of the opportunity than many would expect. Determined to gain the sympathy of the Empress, she begins wandering the palace corridors at night, hoping to run into her. When she, instead, runs into the powerful Chancellor, Varvara proves her talent for listening to those who are too careless or proud to imagine that they might be overheard or betrayed. She becomes a royal tongue, a keeper and betrayer of secrets, and is even admitted to the Empress’s bedroom to tell her stories and massage her feet.
Varvara now begins to feel herself indispensable – but Stanchiak is keen to impress upon her readers the idea that fate is fickle. In a court where subterfuge, lies and betrayal are the only means of power and advancement, everyone is watching studiously to see which way the wind is blowing. In such an atmosphere, it becomes difficult to tell who’s side anyone is really on. Who can Varvara trust? And who should she align herself to to secure her future in the days to come?
It has been a while since a book took me on a journey quite like The Winter Palace. I’ve never been big on historical fiction – I find that facts and fiction are sometimes awkward bedfellows – but Stachniak has reminded me to keep my mind open to it, in case I miss another wonderful book like this. As readers, we are with Varvara from childhood – just as we are with Catherine, from right back when she was plain old Sophie – and it is fascinating to see them grow from frightened, lonely young girls, at the mercy of the whims of the Empress, to strong women, fierce mothers, who hope to bend Russia’s fate to their will. Of course, Stachniak never lets us forget that fate is never tamed entirely. It bends to no one’s will for long.
One of the things that drew me in the most about this book was how real the characters felt. Empress Elizabeth is capricious, vain and selfish but she also has a conscience and her moments of tenderness. The Grand Duke is immature, petulant and spiteful, but he is also attractively simple, in the face of the endless false masks of others at court. Catherine herself is passionate and impetuous – by the time she seizes the throne she is no longer the clear-hearted girl Vavara first pledged allegiance to – but then she, like all the others in the book, has been shaped by the cruelties and humiliations that life, both in and out of court, has dished out to her.
There are no absolute heroes or villains in this book – nobody escapes bitter disappointments, betrayal, loss. Nobody just gets power and lives with it, happily ever after. Indeed, The Winter Palace is a fairly complete study of the sorrows and trappings of power. As in life, Stachniak doesn’t offer glib happy endings – she paints something much more real and this is where the strength of her novel lies – she gives us both the strange and the familiar.
In the fabulously exotic world of Imperial Russia, we get both the curious (birds on strings, cats in velvet jackets, muttered gypsy curses) and the universal (power, greed, passion and revenge) melded together in a wonderful way. The Winter Palace is the perfect book to curl up by the fire with in the cold months – let it transport you to another world as I did and let its real-world wisdom echo in your mind long after you put the book down.