This page-turning, vodka-sodden, tragi-comic crime thriller about political corruption and moral predicaments is a brilliant holiday read.
It’s set in the future: Russia has been taken over by a new generation of despotic oligarchs, dissent is suppressed and former Russian president Vladimir P, now in an advanced stage of dementia, has been hived off to his luxury dacha near Moscow.
Ignored by family, his needs are taken care of by a household of paid staff — housekeeper, cook, kitchen workers, maid, security, chauffeurs — who are all busily creaming off what they can from their helpless employer’s inexhaustible wealth. The only servant not on the make is Vladimir’s round-the-clock nurse, Sheremetev, who, oblivious to the goings-on around him, performs his duty of care guilelessly. To him, Vladimir is a vulnerable, confused and utterly dependent old man who doesn’t know the time of day.
The old president’s greedy, warmongering role in the creation of the “new” Russia is played out in the old man’s “memory attacks” where dealings with former associates and rivals are revisited in visceral imaginary conferences.
The status quo is upset when a new housekeeper arrives who wants to replace the cook’s chicken supplier with her own. This means an end to substantial rake-offs for the cook who fights back by consigning all new poultry deliveries to a pit he’s had dug out the back. At the same time Sheremetev’s brother appeals for help in a life-and-death matter.
All at once the moral disorder unfolds and the innocent nurse can no longer bury his head in the sand. Layer upon layer of lies and manipulation are rolled back to reveal a gangster setup based on bribes in which the incorruptible perish. It’s pollution or perdition all the way and I won’t spoil the surprises by telling any more of the story — let’s just say the ingenious plot twists had me gasping on my sun lounger as tension and jeopardy built to a nail-biting crescendo.
In the midst of the thrills and spills are moments of true tenderness where even the reader is challenged to make a moral choice. It’s a stroke of satirical genius to tell the story of a tyrant through the eyes of a carer; I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher, who lived out her last demented days being waited on by sycophants at the Ritz hotel.
What an insight into the values of the ruling class, who are turning our elderly care into a money spinner for their care-home cronies. Shock by shock, the dacha is revealed as a microcosm of Russia itself — complete with its stinking pit of rotting carcasses.
It’s an unsustainable, labyrinthine web of shapeshifting relationships where friends can become enemies in the twinkling of an eye, and nobody is ever what they seem. Recommended!