Book Review: In ‘Bequest,’ Cossack treasures may tilt balance of power between Russia and Ukraine

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March 11, 2011, 12:07 a.m. | Books — by Simon Appleby

In Anna Shevchenko’s debut novel, the fate of Europe could be drastically altered by the contents of one document – no, it’s not Josef Stalin’s shopping list or Adolf Hitler’s letter to Santa Claus.

It’s the will of a Cossack general whose audacious theft of treasure from the czar could haverepercussions for Russia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom well over a century later if it comes to light.

This book is reminiscent of Robert Harris [English novelist and former BBC journalist], though not perhaps at his best, and takes in settings as far apart as Argentina and Ukraine.

Our heroine, young London solicitor Kate, and our ambitious young Russian secret service agent Tara Petrenko, crisscross the globe pursuing their own agendas with regard to the will, with a number of historical flashbacks thrown in for good measure.

Opening with the revelation of the death of a key character is a brave way to start the book, and Shevchenko’s occasional repetition of the opening paragraphs of chapters is a clever device that gives a nice echoing effect.

The characters are pleasingly three dimensional too: Kate is an average young woman living a slightly chaotic and unsatisfactory life, only involved because she happens to have Ukrainian ancestry; Petrenko starts out as a simple baddy, but is eventually revealed to be quite morally conflicted, more John Le Carre than Robert Ludlum.

The plot twists and turns and may once in awhile succeed in throwing you off the trail completely – so sharp wits are required to get the most out of “Bequest.”

There are three narrative strands to keep hold of, with flashbacks and switchbacks, but any befuddlement I sometimes felt was offset by the flashes of insight into the indignities and horrors that have been heaped on to Ukraine for centuries by the Russian Empire and Communist tyranny, and by a genuine sense of compulsion to keep turning the pages and see what happened next.

“Bequest” probably won’t win any awards, but as thrillers go, it’s a cut above your average airport fare. It succeeds as an adventure story, as an amusing diversion, and a genuinely thought-provoking insight into the casual brutality of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

It’s also genuinely well-written, with well-crafted prose rather than the wince-inducing mangling of the English language that sometimes accompanies this type of exercise. The fact that its author wrote about her home country with a mixture of love and sadness makes “Bequest” well worth a read.

Editor’s Note: “Bequest” by Ukrainian-born author Anna Shevchenko sets you on a hunt for the world’s second-largest unclaimed inheritance through three centuries and across seven countries. Treasures allegedly hidden in the vaults of the Bank of England in the 18th century by Hetman Polubotok set his descendant Andriy on a journey of discovery, drenched in controversial Russia-Ukraine history.

Simon Appleby runs Bookswarm Limited, a company which delivers digital marketing services to publishers and authors. This review first appeared at and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

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