I have no idea how someone this young can write so well, especially for a first novel. As I struggle to write one or two decent metaphors in a couple of poems that I’ve worked on for more than a year, Dubois weaves metaphors into her writing like afternoon lake breezes. They gently roll into the prose leaving me smiling at the image and awaiting the next one. Her story blossoms through her characters, unique and well-developed individuals that encounter some of life’s most basic questions and fears. Irina, an academic who just turned thirty, learns that she has inherited her father’s Huntington’s disease and that it will likely strike in the next year or two. Alexandr, a Soviet chess prodigy, emerges from the Cold War a world chess champion and then shifts his focus to politics where he takes up the cause of running against Putin. I don’t think the plot lines are the gem of the book: the real jewels are the characters and the writing and the way that Dubois can portray human thoughts and fears, from Irina’s fears of dying to Alexandr’s fear that Putin’s Russia will never be any better than Stalin’s Soviet Union. I have no fewer than 20 passages marked in the book–little bits of description that stopped me in my tracks.
At one point, Alexandr thinks about a woman whom he loved, even if only for a very short time. Pondering his short-lived relationship with Elizabeta, Dubois writes “She bobbed to the surface of his life, then disappeared again. She’d hovered for half an hour above his personal lake of loneliness, a sea monster in a smudged photograph, probably not even real. She’d been above water for minutes. She’d barely even waved.” And later as Elizabeta marries a Party official and Alexandr watches: “Elizabeta looked strange in white, when Alexandr had always seen her in black. She was like a domesticated flower, bred through the centuries to be the wrong color.” After Irina has exhibited early symptoms of her disease and is working on Alexandr’s campaign, she quietly offers a suggestion during a meeting. “He (Alexandr) was surprised she was talking. Her desolation hovered around her like an electron cloud.”
Perhaps I struggle more than most novice writers, but I was amazed with Dubois’s ability to capture the depth of human emotion in hundreds of beautiful descriptions. I could overlook a few plot flaws each time I savored another metaphor. (fiction)