The Winter Palace is superb historical fiction

The Winter Palace is the latest book review by Penticton columnist Heather Allen.

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak is this week’s book review by Penticton columnist Heather Allen.

Last week, newspapers around the world announced that Vladimir Putin will become the Russian president … again.

Although the Russian presidency is limited to two terms, Putin has found a way to reclaim a third, and could stay there until well into the next decade.

This modern bending of rules to maintain power is strikingly similar to those that occur in Eva Stachniak’s latest novel, The Winter Palace. Her story centres on the making of Russia’s longest reigning empress, Catherine the Great. After reading about the antics of 18th century politics, I’m not surprised that critics today are calling Putin a 21st century czar.

Much has already been written about the two empresses in this book: Elizabeth and her eventual predecessor, Catherine. But readers of this column convinced me that it would be worth my while to read The Winter Palace. As promised, Stachniak manages to find a fresh and innovative angle.

The Winter Palace is told through the eyes of an orphaned bookbinder’s daughter who begins working in the palace as a seamstress. While wandering the halls one night, Varvara comes upon a stack of books. As chance would have it, a high-ranking palace official discovers her reading, and is intrigued by a common maid who understands several languages.

The official immediately realizes that Varvara could be useful as a spy — an occupation held by many within the palace walls. In a time when the empress ruled with absolute power, getting ahead had more to do with personal relations than with politics. People in the court had to constantly shift alliances and stay on the right side of the empress’ whims. To do this, the palace was literally filled with spies reporting to various factions.

Varvara becomes the empress’s chambermaid, and using all of the secret hiding spots, loose floor boards, false bookshelves and spy holes in the palace, she gains unauthorized views of the life within. This inside viewpoint provides an ingenious way to get at the private stories of many different characters, and also to make the drafty two-storey palace an integral part of the story itself.

The childless Empress Elizabeth is obsessed with finding an heir to the throne. At the same she is preoccupied with increasing the grandeur of the Winter Palace. The excesses of the subsequent opulent rococo renovation match the ever-increasing excesses of the vain and lazy empress.

Elizabeth brings a young Prussian princess, Catherine, to Russia to marry her nephew and provide an heir. Catherine’s journey to St. Petersburg is one of my favourite sections of the book — spies gallop back and forth from the carriage procession to the Winter Palace, reporting on everything from Catherine’s breakfast choices to the thickness of her stockings. While Stachniak weaves many such wonderful details into the book, creating a rich sense of a time long past, she also highlights many of the human foibles that plague our political systems to this day.

Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.

allenh@telus.net

Just Posted

Justice to decide court’s jurisdiction over Indigenous man

Alex Louie, also known as Senklip, is standing trial over 9 charges related to alleged gun smuggling

Driver trapped for 16 hours after car flips

Member of Anarchist Mountain Volunteer Fire Department in Osoyoos made discovery while out for walk

Increase in carbon monoxide closes Osoyoos arena

South Okanagan arena closed as of Monday morning to deal with repairs

Penticton pilots new mobile parking payment app

Eliminating the need to carry change for parking meters

Artist recruitment begins for 2018 sculpture exhibition

Penticton is looking for sculptors to participate in its second public sculpture exhibition

Rally condemns violence, promotes healing

Discovery of human remains and disappearances of women have created tension in the rural community

Province grants $784,000 for Okanagan projects

Rural Dividend grants support Okanagan community projects

B.C. NDP convention set for Victoria

Premier, federal leader Jagmeet Singh to add energy

Silver Creek RCMP search expands north

RCMP were seen collecting evidence three kilometres north of the farm where human remains were found

B.C. school trustee calls LGBTQ school program ‘weapon of propaganda’

Chilliwack’s Barry Neufeld published the comments on his Facebook page

B.C. couple hope boat drone becomes first to cross Atlantic

Colin and Julie Angus of Victoria to have drone collect environmental data en route

B.C. casino accused of illegal activity follows rules: operator

B.C. had launched review after concerns about money laundering at River Rock casino in Richmond

Opponents of LGBTQ program to file human rights complaint against Surrey School District

District denied Parents United Canada right to rent Bell Performing Arts Centre for rally next month

Ex-employee describes alleged sexual assault by B.C. city councillor

Complainant was a teen during the alleged 1992 incident

Most Read