Although it is well known that slaves in the United States were finally given their freedom in the 1860s, it is not so commonly known that in Russia, another form of slavery – serfdom – was abolished by the Tsar in 1861. At that time almost 40% of the Russian population was a serf, owned by a landowner. Linda Holeman’s novel The Lost Souls of Angelkov is set during this time, where freed serfs left the estates, with revenge and decay threatening the old world.
The novel begins with the kidnapping of 10-year-old Mikhail, the only son of the count of Angelkov. The parents’ despair is immense, though through their own personal flaws, like stubbornness and alcohol addiction, matters get worse. At first I found the main characters’ behaviour so frustrating that I was reluctant to read any further. But I’m glad that I did.
The author does a great job in gradually measuring out the parallel life stories of princess Antonina, serfs Lilya and Lyosha, and free men Grisha and Valentin. While first being slightly annoyed by some of the characters, I started to feel sympathy and understanding for the man who betrayed his family, for the person whose endless love and devotion is never returned, and for the girl that was never loved or seen by the family she grew up in. Holeman succeeds in showing that people are not born with evil intentions; it’s their difficult lives that made them become who they are. Love can turn into obsession and hate can turn into love. She teaches us that if we take the time to really get to know a person – unencumbered by notions of class or prejudice – that some deeds may still not be pretty – but at least they’re understandable.
While reading the book – which is very pleasantly written and has some lovely scenic descriptions – you feel for the characters, hoping there is still hope, but actually being scared of what the future will bring. Apart from some plot twists, most changes happen gradually, like the growing madness in one disappointed, and subsequently disturbed character. I really wasn’t expecting this and it shows the quality of the writing. The novel gets to the core of human nature, and still tells a beautiful story.
The story has its dark elements and thanks to the setting – the cold Russian climate – it wasn’t the most perfect read for a sunny afternoon. I would recommend saving this jewel for an autumn day at home; to best feel the characters’ desolation and isolation in Russia’s harsh climate; and to discover whether forgiveness, love and happiness can ultimately be found.