Childhood books are so powerful. They can imbue us with a passion for something unexpected, but whose effects are lifelong. And sometimes, when you look back, you can see the precise moment when it happened, the exact story that turned you on to something deep and important.
I was thinking about that recently—I’m in the middle of writing a wonderfully intense and involving YA fairytale novel, Scarlet in the Snow, inspired by the Russian version of Beauty and the Beast (known as ‘The Scarlet Flower’) and I got to thinking about my enduring fascination for all things Russian, and how it all began. It was with a book my father gave me for my eleventh birthday, a book he himself had loved as a boy, and his father before him: a novel by the classic French writer Jules Verne, simply called Michel Strogoff . (In English, it was published as Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar.)
It’s not well-known in English, but the French consider it to be Verne’s best novel. Historical adventure rather than science fiction, it’s full of exciting action, vivid descriptions, thrilling romance, dark secrets, an engaging touch of humour, great characters, especially the young, brave, honourable Siberian hero, Michel Strogoff, and his beloved, Nadia; and above all a sense of a land as vast as it was dramatic. When I first read it, aged eleven, I already had a few images of Russia, drawn from fairytales I’d loved, such as the Tale of Prince Ivan, Grey Wolf and the Firebird; Fenist the Falcon, Masha and the Bear, The Frog Princess and so on. I was drawn, too, because of my parents’ interest in Russian music and Russian icons, which meant we were familiar with both. But Michel Strogoff turned what had been a liking into a passion.
I read the novel I don’t know how many times, swept away by the grandeur of the story, the fantastic adventure, with its wolves, bears, bandits, iced-up rivers, cruel torturers and traitors. I thrilled to the love I could see developing between Nadia and Michel, both equally brave, each in their own way, and I was swept away too by the description of the journey, which starts in Moscow and ends in Siberia—an exhilerating journey over water and through forest and mountain. Basically, it’s a chase novel, and it has the breakneck pace of that, culminating in an especially unexpected and satisfyingly resolved twist. But it is also beautifully written, as tight and clever as Around the World in Eighty Days, and much more moving. No wonder French critics reckon it’s Verne’s best! [Read more…]