Inspiring Older Readers
Winds of October by Alan Gibbons
Given that this year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the 1917 Russian Revolution, it’s probably not too surprising to find that someone has decided that it might well be a good subject for a novel. What probably will be more of a surprise is that this one is written by an established children’s and young adult novelist who is turning his hand to the adult market for the first time. And Alan Gibbons isn’t going into the project in half measures – Winds of October is the first in a planned trilogy of books chronicling the event of the revolution.
Gibbons apparently wrote the book in ten days over the summer to ensure that it would hit the October publication date and so coincide with what is seen as the first month of the 1917 revolution and it’s a book that burns with the fierceness of that kind of dedicated enterprise. Thankfully this isn’t a ‘political’ book in the sense that it isn’t focussed on explaining the details of the complex politics of the day nor does it attempt to give any sort of guide to the background of the different factions and groups that were beginning to jostle for power in the months leading up to the outbreak of hostilities. In that respect it won’t appeal to the political obsessives and policy wonks who seem to take so much pleasure in endless debating the finer points of theory.
No, what this is is politics seen from the perspective of the ordinary woman and man, the revolution as it happened at street level – sometimes chaotic, sometimes confusing, always dangerous and unpredictable. And Gibbons has made what I think is a fascinating and brave decision to interpret events through the lens of sexual politics – perhaps taking his lead from the feminist slogan ‘ the personal is political’.
How is it possible to write convincingly about world changing historical events that create a potentially enormous canvas? The solution here is to focus down on what is important to people as they live their lives and what it is that the revolution can mean to them. Here it’s not just about some abstract change in who runs the country but a meaningful change in power relationships – especially those between men and women. And the brutal exercise of male sexual power actually becomes in this book symbolic of the political oppression that the working class suffer under the rule of the Czars. Women, like one of the central characters, Raisa, who has grown up being abused and sexually exploited as a teenage prostitute, discover how to break free of this bondage and, inspired by the concepts of the revolution, grow to be strong individuals free to choose what they do with their bodies and free to express their true selves how they want. Women become an uninhibited life force, as embodied by the marvellous Svetlana who takes a student revolutionary lover twenty years her junior and shows him what a relationship of equality can be like.
The action of the novel is full of thrills as well. What could have been a very complex story becomes a tale of hopes raised, dashed and raised again. Treachery abounds at the political and the personal levels and in the months leading up to October 1917 we see just how tenuous an uprising against the powerful can be. Historical figures like Lenin, Trotsky, Jessie Kenney and Kerensky mingle with Gibbons’ own characters as the balance of power sways this way and that. There’s also a particularly gripping sub-story of Raisa’s desperate attempts to keep her jewels (liberated from a particularly reptilian member of the aristocracy) safe from an organised gang of usurers and violent criminals - narrative which gives the book real rocket fuel.
The story is told in relatively short episodes from the perspectives of a handful of characters with interlocking stories and by the end of this first instalment we are left wanting to know what will become of Raisa and her lover Elena, the Red soldier, Pavel, and Svetlana’s relationship with Kolya, the formerly meek student who is rising to power in the Bolsheviks. I’m hoping that we’re going to find out more about what happens to them as the trilogy progresses.
Gibbons is a practiced story teller and he knows how to do that with some panache. As a first attempt at writing an adult novel what he’s done won’t disappoint. That’s not to say everything is spot on with the book – I found some of the dialogue a bit clunky and unconvincing; there are occasions where the characters tend to make speeches to each other rather than speak together like people would in these situations. I also found some of the characterisation could have been stronger – Raisa’s evolution from street prostitute to revolutionary is perhaps a bit too precipitous to be wholly credible.
I certainly feel the book becomes more assured and picks up a narrative pace as it goes along and by the end it really does have wind in its sails – so I’m looking forward to the next instalments.