Twin siblings, a dead Russian mother, an estranged father, a long-lost brother, an expat heroin addict — with Pravda, young British writer Edward Docx has taken these ingredients and concocted an impressive and moving narrative of failure and family.
Spanning New York, London, Paris and St Petersburg, Pravda tells of Gabriel and Isabella Glover, two moderately successful 30-something Brits, dealing with the death of their mother, Masha, a Soviet-era defector who had returned home following the end of the Cold War. This tragedy forces them to reassess their own lives and the continuing impact of their family’s past, in particular the monstrous figures of their father and grandfather.
To complicate matters, Docx sets in motion the story of Arkady Artamentov, probably Masha’s long-abandoned Russian son, who seeks to make contact with his newly discovered relatives. Artamentov is a ferociously talented pianist and part-time hoodlum, sort of a Russian parallel to Harvey Keitel’s character in the movie Fingers. Spurred on by his friend, the Englishman-in-exile and heroin addict, Henry, Arkady works his way through the post-Soviet Petersburg underworld in search of the visa that will take him to his relatives and (hopefully) the money that will help establish his musical career.
While this may sound complicated and overwhelming (and the book is not a short read), Pravda never flounders into incoherence. In fact, the prose is so fluid and the characters so well-constructed, that it holds together tightly and moves at thriller-like speed.
This, Docx’s second novel, gained some favourable attention when it was first published (as Self Help) in the UK last year, including a long-listing for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. This is with good reason, because it an outstanding contribution to the family-with-a-past genre.
A common failing in family novels is the subordination of actual realism to a kind of gritty hyper-realism; wherein true family characters and dynamics give way to an ensemble of characters with broadly-drawn quirks and idiosyncrasies. Docx’s characters are troubled and off-beat — being variously afflicted with disease, romantic strife and addiction — but these aspects never feel forced or simplistic. Each character is more than the sum of their troubles and failings and each defies easy synopsis.
A reasonable comparison would be to another recent family novel, Gerard Woodward’s gripping tale of familial alcoholism, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon, wherein the characters are rarely more than the animals that drinking makes them. If less hard-hitting, Pravda is a good deal easier to relate to.
Take the pivotal role of Nicholas, the father of the dysfunctional Glover clan. While a manipulator, a philanderer, and a bully, Nicholas’ charm and humanity are still apparent. In fact, he is so sympathetically drawn at times that the towering brute of Isabella and Gabriel’s memories seems hard to comprehend. He’s no angel, for certain, but he is a believable brute, rather than a cartoon villain.
Equally, the Glover twins are immature, volatile, and confused in exactly the way many middle-class Westerners are. They are also frequently charming and loyal and it is this contradictory combination of the good and the bad that is so plausible. While the twins may be difficult to like at times, it’s hard to escape the fact that you probably have friends (or siblings) very similar to these.
Surprisingly, the most sympathetic character is not even a member of the central family: it’s Henry, the failed English teacher blowing his dwindling inheritance on junk. His self-sacrificing friendship with Arkady, his self-deluding efforts to end his dependence on heroin and his growing self-awareness — these are all fearlessly portrayed by Docx. Pravda never veers into squalor tourism or reader manipulation. Rather, it’s an honest and humane character study. The acknowledgements at the book’s conclusion show Docx’s intention to avoid the misconceptions about addiction and the extent of his research into the lives of addicts. It is certainly one of the book’s most striking achievements.
Also living and breathing throughout the book are the vividly drawn cities. Docx’s love/hate relationships with London, Paris, New York and St Petersburg are apparent in his lively, descriptive prose. Even the Russian criminal underground, so ripe for exaggeration and unreality, is depicted clearly and plausibly. The Russian’s eye view of London — all jumbled architecture and extortionate prices — is also a joy and particularly notable for having been written by an English native.
Docx has a keenly observant eye and rich gift for description. If his metaphors and similes are sometimes slightly clumsy or ridiculous, it’s mostly because there are so many of them. Perhaps his future novels should tone down some of the descriptions and seek a better balance between spare and purple prose. It would be the aspect in need of correction.
The language is, of course, only part of the package and Pravda’s real strength lies in the vivid human drama it creates. The odd mixture of cowardice and courage in all of us, the curious ties of family and genetics and the eternal quest for significance are all contained within this novel. Docx exhibits masterful control over his key characters, drawing them towards the powerful final sequences and a twist ending that few readers will predict.
Cheap thrillers often juggle many storylines and locales with ease and literary novels frequently create rich characters – here, Docx has managed to do it all.