Regular readers of these (erratic) posts and viewers on my Instagram (@littlecitygarden) will know how much a book’s appearance matters to me: not just the front cover but the paper, the size, the overall design and, most importantly, whether it opens properly and is pleasant to hold. Almost every day I bemoan the advent of perfect binding and the loss of the stitched book.
Even at first sight this book looked enticing; there were maps, photographs, letters and ‘hand-written’ comments in the margins. Most exciting of all the main text was in two colours, one for each of the twins at the heart of the story, a blue fountain pen for Nadya’s story and a red crayon for Viktor’s. I haven’t seen this since the 1983 hardback edition of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, another book I love. I was captivated by Red Stars before I’d even read the blurb.
In every way the story lived up to the book’s appearance. It is set in Russia between June and November 1941 at the time of the siege of Leningrad. When the story opens the twins are twelve. Evacuated from the city for safety, they plan to jointly record their story in a spiral-bound notebook, one of six they are given by their father. Early on in the journey they are separated, each keeping three notebooks, the plan being that they will put their stories together when they are reunited.
What follows is a brilliant adventure story but not a jolly one in the mould of Enid Blyton or Arthur Ransome. There is no going home at the end of the day for ginger beer and cake. The twins are thrown into the midst of war in an uncompromisingly adult world. The horrors they see and undergo are vividly described but these are two children who are determined to survive and be reunited with each other. There are plots and sub-plots with good Russians and bad ones, bad Germans and good ones, and danger and treachery everywhere. The bravery, friendship and loyalty of the two groups of children stand out, meaning that one really cares about the characters.
In 1946 the notebooks are given to Colonel Smirnov of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). It is his task to decide whether the twins are guilty or innocent of a number of crimes and it is his comments that are in the margins. As he, and the reader, work through the notebooks it becomes clear that both Viktor and Nadya were guilty of a number of crimes but that there are mitigating circumstances including corruption at the highest level of the NKVD and the ultimate achievements of the children. It is a clever way of constructing the story because the reader is left uncertain of twins’ fate until the last page. Anyone with a sense of adventure, regardless of age, will be gripped by this story.
Red Stars is published by Pushkin Press on 3rd Sept as a trade paperback at £12.99. Please buy it from a real bookshop.