Two Cousins Of Azov by Andrea Bennett
It seems there is nothing I like more(at least in my more recent book choices) than a cantankerous and mysterious older gentleman. This startling change in my reading habits, coupled with a Russian setting to gently call to my own Baltic roots, makes my acceptance of the kind offer to take my place as a reviewer stop on the Blog Tour for the new book "Two Cousins of Azov" a foregone conclusion
This second book by Andrea Bennett, a new release from Harper Collins turns out to be a very intriguing blend.
As the title suggests, this story centres around two cousins whose lives are being thwarted by constraint and confusion, hobbled by fear or guilt .
Gov, a conjuror of a “certain age” is trying to stage a comeback whilst wearing in a new magician’s assistant. Gov has suddenly got quite a bit on his hereto somewhat bland plate of late. Without fanfare, he is recently alarmed by several unusual occurrences, the unfortunate demise of a rabbit, an inexplicable loss of a boiled egg and shocking appearance of a face at the window when he is four floors up.
This apparition seems inextricably linked to the florid tales of Anatolya, a man with no memory of how he got there, but who is now the near silent inmate of an asylum. He remembers his youth however and it is there that a naive and mildly self serving young doctor must allow him to begin
as he delves into a search for the catalyst for the man’s current mental malaise.
This callow youth’s attempt to cash in academically on the events leading to his recent breakdown and hospitalisation, unlocks speech and his cache of memories.
The gradual revelation of a shared youth in a Soviet Siberia seems to provide the origin story that both boys shared of The Moth Boy that ominous and spectral face that is making poor Gov begin to question his sanity. This is a book about curtains being lifted to the past and truths it reveals.This all set against a brave new world in Russia where the Soviet Block is being dismantled and opportunism vies with traditional values and folklore for the upper hand.
The wide variety of supporting characters seem at first glance, to be extreme and outlandish. They are great fun for the reader. A Somewhat hyperactive children, neighbourhood gossips, hypochondriacs, mediums and underhanded connivers all pepper the tale. Spicing the mix like the ginger in the sweet treats that bring memories and a simple joy to Tolya, these characters bring colour and humorous variety.
Andrea Bennett’s obvious affinity with the Russian people, no doubt stemming from her studies, is used great effect here. The early post Soviet years are drawn with wide streak of grim humour always bubbling at the surface of the story. It is a stoicism typical of those who have seen great suffering with no outlet for complaint that even when faced with startling and frankly terrifying events they just get on with the daily grind. A place where a piece of cake is the epitome of joy and contentment.
These larger than life folk actually nestle into a much deeper more intelligently layered story punctuated with sweetly melancholic examination of the true nature of loneliness. It excavates the burdens of guilt we place on ourselves after a long and eventful, the realities of ageing and the ethereal nature of the memory.
Andrea Bennett has written a story that made me smile and chuckle but simultaneously made me very sad too. There is a gentle pathos to the story and I applaud her ability to make a story magical and a little mythical and yet also desperately honest and real.
I travelled alongside these two extraordinary men, for a while and when I left them, I felt compelled to reaffirm and reinforce my own relationships.
When a book’s signature resonates into my real world so loudly and with such clear tones, I know I have discovered a winner. I can offer no greater praise than this, when the final page was turned, I wished for amnesia so that I might read it again.
Oh and one more thing...
For an extra treat and a chance to recreate a taste of the book in your own kitchen:
Here is a recipe for the delicious cake-like biscuits that Tolya loves so much!
Traditional Russian pryaniki use special mounds and stamps, but don’t let the lack of them stop you from trying to make them yourself: traditional cookie cutters do just as well, as does the rim of a glass.
3-cups all-purpose flour
1-teaspoon baking soda
1-teaspoon of dry ginger
1/2-teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2-teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4-teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 large eggs
1 knob of fresh ginger: finely grated
1-cup granulated sugar
1-cup of honey
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2-cup confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
3 tablespoons of lemon zest
1. Sift together the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and salt.
2. Beat the eggs and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until pale and thick.
3. Gently heat the honey and ginger in double boiler until warmed through.
4. Stir the honey and vanilla into the beaten egg mixture. Mix in the dry ingredients to form stiff dough.
5. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.
6. Make the icing: combine confectioner sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest together until smooth. Set aside.
7. Preheat the oven to 190°C. Place the tack in the middle of the oven. Butter or grease two cookie sheets.
8. Turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface and roll out to 1cm thickness.
9. Cut the cookies to roughly 5cm diameter, depending on the shape and cutters you use.
10. Place cookies on the prepared baking sheets at 5cm intervals. Bake for 9 minutes; rotate the sheet, then bake for an additional 9 minutes (total 18 minutes or until the cookies are just golden).
11. Allow the cookies to cool for 2 minutes on the tray, and then transfer them to a cooling rack for at least 20 minutes.
12. Glaze cookies with icing.