books

"I just finished one of the best books I've ever read."

Last night, in the early hours of the morning, I was curled up into a ball sobbing into a book I stole from my mum when she wasn’t looking.

There are some books that are a gift. An experience. A door into another world that will challenge us to feel things we’ve never felt before.

And I think we only come across a handful of these books in our lifetime. For me, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was one of them. Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl was another.

But when I opened the first page of Paullina Simons’ The Bronze Horseman, I didn’t expect to encounter a story that would fundamentally change how I think about the world.

I’d had half a dozen people recommend Simons’ book to me, and it’s always included in lists like “101 Book You Must Read Before You Die.”  It’s about a girl named Tatiana, living in the Soviet Union just as the Second World War begins.

Pause.

I know. 

I’m obsessed with history and even I’m a little fatigued by wartime narratives. Often, they’re hard work and dense and I read them telling myself ‘it’s good for you’. 

The Bronze Horseman, however, was something else entirely.

The Bronze Horseman. Image via Amazon.
The Bronze Horseman. Image via Amazon.

It's considered a romance novel though I'm not sure it fits so neatly into that category. The love story of 17-year-old Tatiana and Alexander Belov, a soldier in the Red Army, occurs upon the backdrop of the Siege of Leningrad, and presents a context so extraordinarily horrific that the details will remain etched into your memory.

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I'd read about the Siege of Leningrad - but I'd never considered what it means for the individual to be blockaded into a city during war. I'd never thought about the process of starvation, what people actually die from, where they die and how the living manage to cope.

We can read statistics about two million people, two thirds of a city, dying during World War II, without being affected at all.

But when we visit one life, and explore their homes and their dreams and their relationships, the magnitude of that loss suddenly becomes palpable.

A war, we're reminded, is not one tragedy, but a series of unrelenting tragedies.

It is not just war we enter, though. We also fall deeply in love.

The Bronze Horseman is widely regarded as the one of the most epic love stories ever written - a title which it more than deserves.

The author, Paullina Simons, named her youngest daughter Tatiana after the novels protagonist, a woman who embodies strength, resilience, passion, impulsivity, naivety and more than anything, hope.

And what is hope, if it is not the possibility of love? It is the prospect of being loved, and living alongside a man who she so admires, than invigorates Tatiana during the darkest times.

There is something about the Russian spirit, formed over one of the hardest, most deadly centuries in human history, that is captured so perfectly by Simons, who lived in Leningrad herself until she was 10.

It is haunting and bleak, no doubt reminiscent of the lives of so many refugees fleeing cities now, whose lives we so easily package away into the back of their minds.

It would be too much to consider their heartbreak, the loss of siblings and grandparents, life savings and all possessions, the alcoholism of parents who are too traumatised to go on, and the aching sadness that such trauma leaves.

As I read, I experienced a feeling in my chest that was entirely foreign, a pain that has never existed in my own life.

And what a gift that is: to feel, for just a moment, the unimaginable.

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