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A poignant coming of age novel set in KYIV and ST PETERSBURG

23rd August 2023

Brisbane by Eugene Vodolazkin, a poignant coming of age novel, set in Kyiv and St Petersburg

TR: Marian Schwartz

Longlisted for the 2023 Dublin Literary Award

Winner of the Ivo Andrić Grand Prize for best novel of 2022


When renowned guitarist Gleb Yanovsky boards a plane after a concert, he finds himself sitting next to well-known author Sergei Nesterov who offers to write his biography. Gleb reluctantly agrees. The story is then told in parallel narrative form as a story within a story. And really, Brisbane encompasses the whole of Gleb’s life. As Sergei narrates Gleb’s childhood, Gleb himself is dealing with a terrible revelation. He has Parkinson’s disease. And what starts out as a flippant attitude to having yet another biography written about him becomes a race against time as Gleb dearly wants the whole of his life and not just his musical success captured.

As a boy, Gleb is something of a disappointment to his father as he seems to lack any real musical ability. Gleb’s mother is disappointed with her husband. She separates from and then divorces him. Gleb, finding himself distanced from both parents in various ways, is reared by his maternal grandmother. This starting point takes in the decline of Russia and then the independence of Ukraine, with all the friction that follows. In this fashion, Brisbane is very much a novel of the moment. Gleb’s father is a staunch Ukrainian nationalist. His mother is not. The gathering of material for the biography takes place between 2012 and 2014. And it is through both his characters and this critical moment in the history of the two countries that Vodolazkin depicts the deep-seated and enduring tensions between Ukraine and Russia.

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The title, Brisbane, seems to pull the reader out of the story in the same way that anachronisms do, ‘Brisbane’ embodying the unfulfilled dreams of Glen’s mother who wants to visit the Australian city but fails to secure a visa because the authorities decide she had not yet visited the whole of Russia. Brisbane represents freedom, and all that Russia is not. After that early rejection, his mother is determined to fulfill her dream. The title teases the narrative, rather like a butterfly dancing forever out of reach.

This is a long haul of a novel although it would be unfair to describe it as turgid. The storytelling feels dense mostly because paragraphs are few. Themes of music, culture and language, along with the challenges of fame are artfully interwoven throughout the narrative. Brisbane is a setting rich and utterly captivating novel. I could find no fault with the translation.

A poignant coming of age novel set in KYIV and ST PETERSBURG.

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Guest Review by Isobel Blackthorn

Isobel is a prolific Australian novelist. She writes both contemporary/literary, thrillers and dark fiction. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and via her website. 

A poignant coming of age novel set in KYIV and ST PETERSBURG

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