One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore
It was somewhat of a surprise to me that Simon Sebag Montefiore had written a number of fiction books in addition to his non-fiction historical books. I was familiar with Montefiore’s writing from my History A Level, in which we studied Russian history and I was a geek who read books outside of the required reading, so when I spotted One Night in Winter in a charity bookshop I thought it would be some interesting holiday reading. I already knew that Montefiore was an engaging historical writer, but I was surprised by how well his writing style translates to a novel.
One Night in Winter is loosely based on the true story of ‘The Children’s Trial’, in which the children of high-ranking officials in Stalinist Russia were discovered to have been creating a joke government, playing at assigning themselves positions of power. This was taken by the secret police to be an act of anti-Soviet conspiracy and the children were arrested, kept in prison for six months, forced to sign confessions, and finally exiled for six months in Central Asia. Montefiore has expanded the story, creating the specific characters involved in the case (although he admits that some are very strongly based on historical figures) as he reimagines what it was like for the children and their families as the case unfolded. He also intertwines several subplots, mainly revolving around the romantic lives of the characters, which he uses to push the stakes even higher.
I was on holiday with my friends whilst reading this book: not an entirely wise move on my part, since it was so engaging and gripping that it was difficult to put it down and actually socialise. Montefiore successfully invokes a world within Stalinist Russia which is full of tension, intrigue, and paranoia; there is a definite sense in which every move is being watched and every decision could end in disaster. Given that this was a fictionalisation of the case, the outcome is never certain for the reader: with the behavior of the secret police, the case ending with more tragedy is a very real threat throughout the novel. Montefiore uses his historian’s knowledge of the secret police and their interrogation techniques to great effect here, with the children’s fear and the parents’ realisations of what their children will be going through clearly adding layer upon layer of tension.
The romantic subplots, the majority of which were Montefiore’s inventions, were the weakest aspect of the novel by far. In his notes at the end of the book, Montefiore notes that this ‘is not a novel about power but about private life – above all, love’ (p. 449) and it is true that this is a clear theme throughout. However, it is the love of family and friendship which evokes the strongest reactions in the reader as the case continues: as the parents cope with the loss (or potential loss) of their children; as the children deal with the idea that their parents cannot save them from this; as these friends realise that maybe they knew less about each other than they thought they did. It is in those relationships that the real heart of the novel lies, and, in my opinion, Montefiore did not need to spend so much time outlining the romantic entanglements of those involved in order for the reader to engage with the narrative.
I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in historical fiction. With Montefiore’s position as a historian, it is clearly one of the more accurate historical novels available, yet it is anything but slow-paced. In many ways, it is probably more accurately described as a hybrid of historical fiction and spy fiction, with a tense narrative of secrets at the highest level of politics. I really enjoyed this foray into Montefiore’s fiction, and it reminded me to dip back into some of his non-fiction works as well.