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by Boris Starling
HarperCollins, March 2004
448 pages
ISBN: 0007119453

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

VODKA is a magnificent, majestic, dense, compelling epic. This isn't a disposable thriller to be sampled in a day. It took me a bank holiday weekend to read, and I loved every page of it.

There are so many strands to VODKA, it's difficult to know where to start unravelling them in a review, and you may decide, after reading the book, that author Starling has enough plotlines for at least two books! It's December 1991, Gorbachev has been removed as president and the old Soviet Union is fragmenting. Alice Liddell, an American banker and IMF high-flyer, is brought in to help dismantle the old Communist system by privatising one of Russia's most prized assets -- the Red October Vodka distillery. But she finds herself hurled headlong into a country quite unlike any other she's ever encountered and which is still clinging to the vestiges of the old regime.

While all this happens, mafiya gangs are battling to control Moscow. At the forefront of this power struggle is Lev, an enigmatic figure who just happens to be a parliamentary deputy, the distillery director and champion weightlifter, as well as a crime godfather. His destiny and that of Alice's are entwined throughout the book's 400+ pages. But, as Alice battles to push through the controversial privatisation, children are being murdered in Moscow, and it looks like it may be the work of Lev's arch-enemy Karkadann

A sprawling, Dickensian cast of characters surround them, with Estonian-born investigator Juku Irk, an incorruptible presence in a corruption-ridden police force, the other main protagonist. Lev, Alice and Juku are all outsiders in different ways, but the two foreigners are captivated by the contradictory country in which they have ended up.

VODKA spans 100 days of intense, freezing Moscow winter. As with Dickens, the city is the dominating character in the book alongside the alcohol of the title, the people, the history and the culture. And dogging each footstep is the complex history of Russia -- its past, chaotic present and uncertain future.

The book is very violent, very blood-thirsty and Starling narrates the horrors dispassionately. But he pulls off that very difficult task of making the reader care about a cast of flawed characters, particularly crime baron Lev and Alice, whose ability to drink her hosts under the table, sees her slide into alcoholism.

At times it seems like an inexorable march to tragedy in the way that the Russian greats like Tolstoy and Bulgakov would have recognised, and the reader may think they have the ending pegged. But Starling keeps back a twist or two at the last.

Thrillers with a Russian or Soviet theme are ten a penny, but few writers have successfully portrayed the country from within, Martin Cruz Smith's GORKY PARK and Robert Harris's ARCHANGEL excepted. And few have taken on the task since the Iron Curtain came down. Starling has set a frighteningly high standard for others to follow.

Starling's the man behind MESSIAH, made into a bleak BBC drama starring the marvellous Ken Stott. If someone is brave enough to film VODKA, it will cost them a king's ransom, but, done well, would be riveting viewing.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, April 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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