Fiction Review: 13:06:19
THE WOLVES OF LENINSKY PROSPEKT
by Sarah Armstrong
Our reviewer finds a more psychological aspect to this Cold War thriller.
In 1973, Martha is sent down from Cambridge for protesting about women not being allowed into certain colleges. Back home in her privileged family environment, she is being pressured into becoming a teacher. To get away from her parents and her small town's disapproval, she marries her best friend Kit, who is going to be working in Moscow, maybe in some sort of spying capacity. But Kit is gay and Martha is marrying him to keep him safe.
To learn all she can about the culture she researches Russia and finds a small pamphlet by a writer called EV Mann mysteriously left on her desk at the library. When she gets to Moscow, she meets an Eva Mann who she suspects is the author of the pamphlet. But as Kit says 'nothing in Moscow is a coincidence'...
The reality of the USSR is nothing like the vision that Martha’s had of a magical snow-covered place. She grows increasingly paranoid about whether people are following her (they probably are) and says the wrong things to the wrong people, possibly leading to some dire consequences.
Finding no up-to-date maps are available and other maps with places missing, she explores the streets of Moscow to map her own routes, and finds some of the magic she was looking for. It is here that the novel excels, Armstrong depicts a truly magical and mysterious city still enshrouded in the myth and snow of folk tales and reveals Martha’s delight (and sometimes fear) at venturing into the dark forests.
She won't get on with the other diplomatic wives, who want to bring her into their clique so she can keep an eye on other wives who have gone astray, but instead goes in search of Eva Mann, who may or may not be a spy, for one side or the other.
The novel is interspersed with the short stories from the pamphlet, which seem to be analogies for EV Mann's growing disenchantment with Communism, and Martha gets in deeper with Eva, who wants her to pass on a message that she wants to go back to Britain. But the British won't help her. We wonder, was Eva just another trap to test Martha? How exactly did she get hold of Eva’s short stories? Nothing in Moscow is a coincidence…
Martha is the protagonist of the novel but she's actually perhaps its most unsatisfactory character. Why is she so happy to play Kit's wife? There is a tiny hint that she perhaps has feelings for Harriet, her friend from Cambridge. The novel left me with questions about the characters, in the end I wasn’t sure who was really on ‘their side’ or ‘ours’, and which side was supposedly in the right anyway. It was a strangely disorientating read. But maybe this is actually a strength of the novel. It’s not a Cold War espionage thriller in the traditional sense, more an unsettling psychological portrayal of what it might have been like to for a maybe English spy’s wife in 1973 Moscow.
*Sarah Armstrong's short story 'A passing happiness' is published in Issue 9 of Confluence. Order it here.
Sarah Armstrong – The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt
Sandstone Press, Feb 2019
More info on Sandstone Press website