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A surreal and whimsical mystery set in 1919 KYIV

12th March 2024

The Silver Bone by Andrey Kurkov, a surreal and whimsical mystery set in 1919 Kyiv.

Translated by Boris Dralyuk.

Longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024

A surreal and whimsical mystery set in 1919 KYIV

Andrey Kurkov (‘Ukraine’s Greater Living Novelist’ – as described by The New European) is one of my favourite authors. He places bizarre and troubled characters in situations where they seem to fit naturally. His writing is whimsical, historically informative, and a joy to read.

In 1919 the Soviets have taken over Kyiv, and the White Armies are menacing them from the West. The hero of The Silver Bone, Samson, is orphaned when a Cossack soldier – in a random street attack – slices straight through his father, top to bottom, with a sabre. Samson himself escapes with just his right ear cut off…His life changes. He lives in a flat that belonged to his parents and, because of its over large size for one, two red army soldiers are billeted with him. Their room used to be his father’s study, and his severed ear is kept in tin in a drawer in his father’s desk. He can strangely still hear through his severed ear and one night eaves drops them plotting a number of burglaries. Samson joins the police to investigate further. The men are arrested and taken off to gaol. Meanwhile the caretaker to the block where Samson lives says he should marry and introduces him to Nadezhda. They get on well, and – as she needs somewhere to live near her work – she moves in with Samson. It’s a platonic relationship with overtones…

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Samson, in his new role as a policeman, investigates the murder of a tailor to whom he had been trying to return cloth and patterns that had been somewhat bizarrely stolen and found in a bag in his flat after the arrest of the soldiers. In the bag there were also a lot of silver items – gold and jewels had been ignored in the soldiers’ nighttime activities.  One of the silver items was the silver bone of the title, a beautifully modelled left femur. What on earth had it been made for? Why was the tailor so frightened to talk to him before he was killed? Samson discovers a surgeon who had ‘joked’ to a patient with a withered leg that he could insert a silver femur to make his leg whole again. Had the ‘joke’ been taken seriously? He tries to track down the patient, and puts himself in considerable danger as he does so. There are a lot of undesirables wandering around Kyiv. Because of the danger, he moves Nadezhda back, on a temporary basis, to live with her parents. Will he solve the mystery and find out who killed the tailor? Will she return to his flat?

The Silver Bone is a great story of strange goings-on in war-torn Kyiv. It is memorable not just (or perhaps even primarily) because of its well constructed plot but because of the range and depth of the characters that Kurkov creates. Many are oddities and misfits, but they come together in a very convincing way.

Excellently translated by Boris Dralyuk.

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