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The People's Act of Love by James Meek

The People's Act of Love

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Winner of the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year 2006.

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This is a story painted on a wide canvas. Set in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in remote Sibera, a story of love, destruction and evil unfolds. Not for the faint hearted, this novel will take you on a journey so long and vast, it evokes an earlier epoch in storytelling.

This is a story of such size and extremes. Where to start in trying to give a sense of it? There is a fantastic sense of time and place, a clash between groups, characters, ideologies and ultimately between good and evil. Man struggles to make sense of the world, to gain happiness, particularly so in this land of extremes. There is true wickedness and a powerful force of destruction, in a meticulously drawn plot, richly peopled with a multitude of characters. This is a satisfying chunk of Russian history that it is a real pleasure to discover.

It is the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, in the tiny village of Yazyk, in a frozen and forgotten corner of Siberia, the remote cousin of the vast sprawl of Russia. Siberia is wonderfully drawn as an unkempt, slothful and derelict land, incapable of feeding its people and reluctantly feeling the aftershocks of Revolution. This is a fitting backdrop for acts extreme brutality and cruelty, for the multiple horrors and repeat tableaux of desperation and decay. Here nothing matters and no one cares.

Into this festering landscape Meek has positioned key groups - a garrison of Czech soldiers that has been forgotten and left behind, an isolated Christian sect, whose members are committed to becoming angels and the Red Army.

Out of this muddle emerge important characters who carry the narrative - the insane Czech commander Mutula, his nemesis Mutz, the Christian leader Balashov and local widow Anna Petrovna. Their static world is shattered by the arrival of Samarin, who does not so much represent the destroyer as destruction itself. Samarin is elusive and mercurial, almost a shadow and he comes to represent many things. His mission slowly unfolds – the people’s act of love to its future self, and through Samarin, the world will be dragged towards the future.

The groups are driven by ideologies, sometimes conflicting, although the Czechs are ground down by 5 years of campaigning and just want to go home. The Christians make a small-scale bid for salvation by abandoning the ‘keys to Hell’ and Samarin is an agent of change whose ideology, ‘the Idea’ will ultimately wreak catastrophic, violent change.

When I finished reading it I felt almost shell-shocked. A friend commented that it made her feel like she had been an inhabitant of another land for the duration. It is a mesmerizing book, captivating because it works on so many levels. There are descriptions so powerful, so ridiculously visual that I felt like I must have seen the painting – or watched the film. The language is beautiful – a friend commented that it reads like a translation of a Russian novel. Meek was a Guardian correspondent in Moscow, living there for 10 years. His unobtrusive research, natural sense of the idiom of speech and overall feel for the place can only be born out of the real experience of living there. Apart from that, I have no idea how Meek has managed to get inside the soul of a place quite so effectively. Writers, read this book and weep!

If you like James Meek you might also like to read books by Julian Barnes, James Fleming and Starling Lawrence.


The People's Act of Love by James Meek


In the outer reaches of a country recently torn apart by civil war lives a small Christian sect and its enigmatic leader, Balashov. Stationed nearby is a regiment of Czech soldiers, desperate to get home but on the losing side of the recent conflict. Uncertainty prevails.

Into this isolated community trudges Samarin, an escapee from Russia's northernmost gulag. Immediately apprehended, he is brought for interrogation before Captain Matula, the regiment's megalomaniac commander. But the stranger's arrival has caught the attention of others, including Anna, a beautiful, young war widow. And when the local shaman lies dead, suspicion and terror engulf the little town . . .

James Meek's novel is a breathtaking contemporary fable staged against one of the most remote landscapes on earth. The remarkable cast of characters and Meek's uncanny ability to evoke the period bring to mind the work of the great Russian masters. The People's Act of Love is a magnificent piece of storytelling, an unforgettable novel and a deeply satisfying read.


“A quite extraordinary novel … The language is so fresh and crisp and sparkling - and yet never for the sake of showing off. And what a narrative! What a story! There's a majestic disdain for littleness in this book - for littleness of ambition, for narrowness of sympathy, for pettiness of imaginative scope. I admire it enormously.”
Philip Pullman

"The People's Act of Love has a timeless quality; it will be read, referenced, studied and talked about for years to come." Irvine Welsh, The Guardian

"There is marvellous story-telling here, a treasure-house of stories." Allan Massie, The Scotsman

“A big, bold, thrillingly different story told with uncanny authority. Meek understands the horrific power of evil, but he never loses his sense of humour or his affection for those odd moments of grace that keep the human heart alive.” Michel Faber

About the Author

James Meek

James Meek was born in London in 1962 and grew up in Dundee. We Are Now Beginning Our Descent is his fourth novel. His previous book, The People's Act of Love (2005), won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, the SAC Book of the Year Award, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and has been translated into more than twenty languages.

He has published two collections of short stories, Last Orders and The Museum Of Doubt, and contributed to the acclaimed Rebel Inc anthologies The Children Of Albion Rovers and The Rovers Return.

He has worked as a journalist since 1985, and his reporting from Iraq and about Guantanamo Bay won a number of British and international awards. In the autumn of 2001 he reported for the Guardian from Afghanistan on the war against the Taliban and the liberation of Kabul.

Photograph © Jo Kane

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Book Info

Publication date

7th March 2013


James Meek

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Canongate Books Ltd


416 pages


Historical Fiction
All Shortlists and Winners
Literary Fiction
Reading Groups
eBook Favourites

Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)



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