By his own admission, “a sense of place” is what often inspires Marcus Sedgwick’s storytelling. Combined with Sedgwick’s almost gothic flair and often Unheimlich and atmospheric way of writing, this has resulted in a couple of gems. In Revolver, for instance, that setting is the Arctic, suitably evoked in an almost claustrophobic way. The 2007 novel, Blood Red Snow White, is quintessential Sedgwick too: a unique setting (Russia during the Russian Revolution) and a mesmerizing style (especially in parts 1 and 2 of the book) contribute to draw in the reader like a magnet.
Blood Red Snow White is a fictionalized biography of the writer Arthur Ransome during his extended stay in Russia. However, it is not like any other biography you are likely to read: part fairytale, part spy story, part romance we do not only follow Arthur Ransome, writer, journalist and potential spy but also the fate of the Russian bear in its rebellion against the regime of the Tsar.
This story is told in three distinct but clearly connected parts. Part one tells the story of how Ransome – disillusioned by a loveless marriage – sets off for Russia, leaving behind a daughter, Tabitha, who he loves very much. At the same time, Sedgwick introduces us in the most allegorical of ways, almost mimicking traditional Russian folklore, to the key players of the Russian Revolution who manage to send the great Russian bear out of the forest and into Tsarist territory: “One was a Russian, the other a Jew, and they were firm friends, though they spent much of their time arguing. They would argue about all sorts of things, but each would listen politely to what the other had to say. First, the Jew, whose name was Lev, would argue that the people of Russia should be its true masters, and while he did, the Russian, whose name was Vladimir, would stroke his small and excellent beard. Then they would swap, and Vladimir would argue that while what Lev had to say was true, they should not forget that people needed guidance from enlightened minds. And Lev would stroke his own small and excellent beard.”
If part one reads like a classic Russian folktale, then Sedgwick switches voices in part two to introduce us to Ransome as a potential spy, recruited by his friend Lockhart, when it becomes obvious that Ransome clearly has questions about some of the actions of the Russian revolutionaries. This part almost reads like a spy thriller, with each chapter also suitably time-stamped. When Ransome decides against helping out Lockhart, because he feels the future of Russia is nobody’s business but the Russians, we get to part three in which the romance between Ransome and Evgenia, who also happened to be Trotsky’s secretary, is the main focus. Ransome returns to England, but because of his previous sympathies for the Russian Bolshevists he finds himself out of a job and fearing for Evgenia’s safety.
Parts one and two are stylistically clearly the strongest parts of this sophisticated and captivating read. This is mainly because the language is so fittingly haunting. Part one is dark and sparsely told, as any good fairy tale should be. Part two bears all the typical spy story elements: it’s tense and threatening with an acute sense of betrayal to keep you at the edge of your seat. That is why it is a bit of pity that a novel that is so good loses much of its tension in the last third as we return with Ransome to England and then follow him into Sweden so he can go and get Evgenia.
That being said, Blood Red, Snow White is still one of the best historical novels slash biographies you will encounter. Sedgwick is one of those authors who effortlessly crosses the artificial boundaries between children’s, young adult and adult literature. This should come as no surprise because anyone who can write this compellingly, and has such a distinctive voice deserves the largest audience possible. About Revolver, Sedgwick said: “[…] that’s what makes writing teenage fiction so exciting: you can do almost anything, unconstrained by the obsessions with style and genre that plague adult fiction.” Restrictions of any kind, though, are obviously in the eye of the literary critic (in most cases), and luckily for this reader, Sedgwick is not one to be bound by them.