A mysterious stranger wanders out of the woods of Siberia in 1919, finding himself in a small town inhabited by a bizarre Christian sect and occupied by a company of Czech soldiers whose leader wants to become a feudal lord in the frozen tundra. So begins James Meek's The People's Act of Love, a dark, stirring and beautiful novel that can proudly take its place beside the classic Russian novels. This is a complex story full of twists, turns and surprises. The author's spare but lyrical language illuminates the characters and allows the story to come alive and grow in the reader's imagination.
The stranger, Samarin, who is immediately arrested, tells a story of escape from a northern prison, the White Garden, with a fellow inmate who had taken him along to eat him when the food ran out. His harrowing tale disturbs the villagers and makes them wonder if the murder of a shaman in the town might have been committed by the bloodthirsty cannibal. Anna Petrovna, a widow raising a young son in the village, is captivated by Samarin and asks that he be released into her custody while the officials of the town try to sort out what's going on. Meanwhile, conflicts rage among the Czech soldiers, who are divided over whether to support their leader's ambitions or to side with a lieutenant who just wants to get the men home to their newly independent country.
A longtime journalist, Meek meticulously researched the time period, locations and situations that are chronicled in this book. Perhaps because of this, it feels as much like history as fiction, but the novel is always engaging and entertaining as well as educational. At the end of this mesmerizing tale, the reader will still have questions about almost all of the characters and circumstances of the story, but will be left feeling satisfied that they have entered an intricately wrought, realistic world full of characters they will feel privileged to have encountered.
Sarah E. White is a freelance writer living in Arkansas.