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The People's Act of Love Hardcover – November 16, 2005

4.1 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

James Meek has won several awards for his journalism and his fiction, but The People's Act Of Love is a singular departure from all that came before. It is a big Russian novel, written in English. Meek has upped the ante on such books as Cold Mountain and The March in bringing the reader his version of the unspeakable horror and brutality of war, the colder-than-cold winter, the cruelty and humanity of people in extremis.

It is 1919 in Yazyk, Siberia, far from anywhere. The war is waning, but its ravages remain. There is an uneasy detente between a group of Czech soldiers, marooned on the losing side and longing to go home, and a fanatical Christian sect that practices castration as a means of purifying themselves. One of their number is their leader, Balashov, married to a beautiful and restive photographer, Anna Petrovna, who has come to the village of Yazyk to raise her son, after learning of her husband's castration. Her fury knows no bounds. She gives herself to anyone who is interested as a means of shaming Balashov, and satisfying her own appetites.

Into this motley collection of people comes a stranger, Samarin, who says he has escaped from The White Garden, Russia's northernmost prison camp, a place of unbelievable barbarism. Shortly after his arrival, the village shaman, possessed of a third eye and an albino sidekick, is found murdered. Suspicion falls immediately on Samarin. In successive chapters, Meek has each person or faction tell his or her story. Samarin, a revolutionary, charismatic visionary, every bit as zealous as the castrates, tells of his escape. Matula, the crazy, cocaine-snorting leader of the Czechs, doesn't really want to go home, so he prevents his soldiers from leaving. Mutz, a sensible sort, quite taken with Anna, dreams of home and keeps hope alive among his soldiers. Balashov tells of what led him to castrate himself.

The hopes, wishes, dreams, and illusions of all these people converge in Meek's novel. He shows man as pure, base, megalomaniacal, rational, intelligent, incredibly stupid--every aspect of humanity is examined, especially compassion. Despite the horrid excesses of war--and peace--Meek, in their telling, weaves a completely believable story of what happens to people who are not just at the margins of the world, but at the edge of their ability to understand themselves and the world around them. (The people's act of love, by the way, has nothing to do with love: it is cannibalism.) Don't miss this extraordinary novel; it is hugely deep and satisfying. --Valerie Ryan

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Set during the waning days of the Russian revolution, Meek's utterly absorbing novel (after The Museum of Doubt) captivates with its depiction of human nature in all its wartime extremes. In 1919, the remote Siberian town of Yazyk contains a strange brew of humanity: the docile members of a mystical Christian sect, whose longing for purity drives them to self-mutilation; a small outfit of Czech troops, marooned by the civil war and led by the mad cocaine-snorting Captain Matula; and "the widow" Anna Petrovna, whose passion for worldly things (e.g., photography and men) isolates her from the devout townspeople. When the charismatic revolutionary, Samarin, trudges into town with a harrowing tale of escape from a distant labor camp and a dangerous philosophy, Yazyk becomes a theater of bloodshed and betrayal as well as heroism and compassion. Using the town as a microcosm of the larger war, Meek illuminates both perverted ideology and irrepressible humanity. With confident prose, layered storytelling and prodigious imagination, he combines scenes of heart-pounding action and jaw-dropping revelations with moments of quiet tension and sly humor. This original, literary page-turner succeeds both with its credible psychological detail and in its grandeur and sweep.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 391 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate; 1st edition (November 16, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1841957305
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841957302
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,433,717 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
*The People's Act of Love* is an extremely meaty novel, written with care and elegance. Amazingly, for a novel that touches on (among other things) a sect of castrates, a premediated act of cannibalism, and the motivations of a revolutionary bomb-thrower, its tone is restrained, precise, lucid. It's this tone of normality (as one critic has called it) that makes the unbelievable events described in this novel so believable, and that keep the reader turning page after page, eager to dive into the author's world.

What kind of world does Meek create, then? Most of the novel is set in a small town in the Siberian outback, as the Russian Revolution sweeps from Petrograd in the west to Vladivostok in the east. The revolution hasn't quite made it to this small town, which sits in a kind of political and spiritual limbo: the Czech Legion (having been contracted by the Tsar) is the presiding authority, even though at the moment the Tsar is gone; meanwhile the town's residents, who are involved in a secret mystical sect that demands castration from the men, keep their distance from the political events of the day. Disrupting this fragile equilibrium is the arrival of an escaped convict: the spell-binding and brilliant Samarin, a man who is equal parts fantasist, visionary, revolutionary, and murderer. With Samarin, Meek has created a gripping, indelible figure, one who magnetizes the whole of the novel: we shudder as we follow the trajectory of his mind, and yet we can't help but feel shivers of excitement, too, as he takes us where no sane person would ever hope to go.

In all, a beautifully-written, beautifully-troubling novel.
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Format: Hardcover
It was the intention of James Meek that his third novel, The People's Act of Love, should be written in the manner of the great Russian novels. While I have little to no experience in this branch of literature there were enough idiosyncrasies within the book to believe that he has, at least, achieved this. And, having spent eight years living in Russia whilst following his career in journalism, Meek may be better qualified than most to write a modern take on the Russian novel .

Set in Yazyk, a remote village in the Siberian wilderness, the novel investigates the actions of a small group of people. There is Balashov, the leader of a bizarre Christian sect; Mutz, a Jewish soldier from Prague, who is one of a number of Czech soldiers on the losing side of the Russian Revolution; Anna Petrovna, a young war widow, who lives in the town with her son, Alyosha; and Samarin, an enigmatic escapee from a Siberian prison camp, who is just passing through, being followed, so he says, by another prisoner named the Mohican.

The People's Act of Love is high on drama, and, as the action unfolds the death of a local shaman brings suspicion to Yazyk. Samarin, being the stranger with an unverifiable story, becomes the prime suspect and is imprisoned. When he tells his story to a makeshift court, a long painful narrative about life in a hellhole called the White Garden, he garners sympathy and, at the request of the undersexed Anna Petrovna, goes to stay under her watchful eye.

As the events happen in Yazyk, further tension is added to the fears of the closeknit community by the knowledge that the Reds, winners of the Russian Revolution, are coming. A priority for them is to eliminate the Czech soldiers, men desperate to return home, and claim the town for the People.
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Format: Paperback
such as we may come across here and there in the world, is unmixed with compassion. The more we love, the more the object of our love seems to us to be a victim."

Yuri Zhivago, who uttered these words in Boris Pasternak's classic tale Dr. Zhivago, would no doubt find common bond with the setting and characters that inhabit James Meek's wonderful book "The People's Act of Love".

Most of the People's Act is set in 1919 in the village of Yazyk, in Siberia. To call Yazyk the middle of nowhere is to give it too much credit. Russia, now the USSR, is in the midst of its post-revolutionary civil war that has caused untold deaths and facilitated illnesses and famine. Yazyk's end-of-the earth location does not insulate it entirely from these events. The town is run by a stranded division of a Czechoslovakian Legion with no apparent means to return to Prague subsequent to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Legion is commanded by Captain Matula who for all intents and purposes is both insane and sadistic. The civilians in the town consist mainly of a mystic sect of eunuchs (the "Skoptsy") who believe their self-immolation removes the one body part responsible for most of the world's sins. As far fetched as this may seem, the presence of stranded Czech soldiers and the existence of a sect of castrati inhabiting parts of Siberia is a matter of record and was not a piece of fiction created by Meek solely for this novel.

The town is also inhabited by Anna Petrovna, who appears to be a widow, and her son. The Red Army is making its way towards Yazyk and intends to seek revenge for an act of brutality committed by the Czechs. A younger stranger, Samarin, makes his way into the town. He tells a fantastic story about escaping from a Siberian labor camp.
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