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Customer Review

on February 10, 2004
A harrowing train journey set against an exotic background of spies and intrigue, a beautiful and accomplished heroine, dramatic surprises and distinguished and extraordinary characters; this book has it all. The main plot revolves about the political complexities developing in Europe and Russia around 1901, and while the action takes place chiefly in France, the main protagonist, Laura, is a well-born Englishwoman still too young to have been presented at court. From her British father she inherits down-to-earth commonsense, and from her Russian mother an instinctive love of Russia and sympathy with the Russian soul. Whenever we are in danger of being carried away by extravagant idealism and lofty speculation, Laura jumps in and effectively pricks the bubble.
Laura takes the train to Paris with her mother Tania, to visit her wealthy grandparents, exiled from St. Petersburg two years previously as a result of high political manoeuvres. Her sick grandmother needs urgent medical attention and Tania is very worried. Laura and the aging count, whose physical and spiritual size dwarfs that of any ordinary mortal, are packed off by train to stay with an American great-aunt somewhere on the coast. Kamensky, the count's devoted right-hand man, is at the last moment prevented from joining them by a trivial incident.
Soon after the train gets under way the carriage is invaded by an aristocratic but scruffy Russian who subjects the count and Laura to a long and involved narrative. He claims that the Tsar is scheming to lure Count Diakonov back to Russia for a mock trial, after which he will be left to languish and die in prison. He has been betrayed by trusted members within his household. Finally convinced, the count insists on leaving the train, has a heart attack on the station platform and dies later in a nearby hotel where he is installed in the state bedroom. Though fussed over by various well-meaning local dignitaries, Laura is fearful and very much alone.
Re-enter (a) Kamensky and (b) Laura's father, roused at the last moment from the House of Commons. We return on the train to Paris and further events take their exciting course.
One of the many interesting things about this book is that it came out in 1966, when Rebecca West was in her 70s, at the culmination of a long career, which suggests that she worked on it and had it in mind for a large part of her life. Her involvement with, and love for, Russian culture, history, and religion are readily apparent. The book is built around three great monologues: Chubinov's revelations in the train, the count's sublime meditations on his deathbed, and Kamensky's apology. While appreciating her grandfather's loyalty and devotion to the Tsar, his heroism as a solder, his wisdom as an administrator, his deep and all-embracing faith, his difficulty in discovering at the end any serious cause for self-reproach, Laura is under no illusions. How can he not see that he's done exactly as he pleased all his life?
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