For the first time he could remember, he tried to understand his father, to think himself into the mind of this man who had both endured and taken part in the massacre of his generation of young men. However terrible that destruction, his father had been determined he would start again, would build a family and a home, would create a garden. Perhaps war was a cyclical purge, an inevitable cleansing. Perhaps it was a necessary epidemic, not an evil that could be avoided? Rain, storm, tempest; war and peace, destroy, rebuild, destroy again — was this an unavoidable cycle?
(from The Music in Her Mind, page 35)
No matter my feelings about this book, I have to give the author a lot of credit. According to the press release that accompanied my copy of The Music in Her Mind, Robert Gilkes was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year ago and given just months to live. He wrote this book, his second, and started a third as a way to deal with the diagnosis and to fight the disease. Fortunately, The Music in Her Mind is a fast, captivating read that personalizes the loss and horrors that so many suffered at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen during and after World War II.
Just before the start of the war, Alex Litchfield visits his Uncle Nikolai in Paris, who has gathered with other Cossacks forced out of their homeland. On this trip, Alex meets Larisa Korsakova, a concert cellist and the daughter of Nikolai’s friend, Fyodor. Alex and Lara have many things in common; both have a Russian parent, but both grew up elsewhere, Alex in England and Lara in France. They both are creative souls, with Alex writing poetry and Lara able to play and hear music in her mind.
Alex and Lara share a passionate few days in Paris before they are separated for years by the war. When they are reunited in 1945, Alex is now Colonel Litchfield, a British tank commander who has learned the hard way that there is no glory in killing. Lara followed her father when he sided with Germany against Stalin, and she is part of a group of Cossacks who surrendered to the British, with Alex promising that they would be protected under the Geneva Convention. Alex and Lara’s romance is cut short once again when the British turn the Cossacks over to the Soviets, particularly the NKVD, or secret police. The NKVD likely will execute many of the Cossacks, and at best, they can hope for time in a Gulag, where hunger, cold, and rape are commonplace.
The Music in Her Mind is just 229 pages, which is short for historical fiction, in my opinion. I felt that the pacing, especially at the beginning, was too quick. In just a handful of pages, Alex and Lara meet and fall madly and passionately in love. I was supposed to believe they were soul mates, whose love could withstand years apart and the ravages of war. However, I felt that I didn’t have enough time to get to know them individually, never mind feel such an intense connection between them. Time passed so quickly in this novel, but I think a slower build-up would have been better here, at least to give readers a deeper understanding of Alex and Lara.
Yet as the story progressed, Gilkes seemed to find his footing, and I couldn’t put the book down. I may have simply accepted Alex and Lara’s connection at first, but by the end, I was a believer. Where the book shines is in Gilkes’ portrayal of the suffering of the prisoners of the NKVD. There was no author’s note to separate fact from fiction, but Gilkes did a great job showing how war and imprisonment take their toll on individuals and couples, changing their relationships and their perceptions of self forever. One could call The Music in Her Mind a love story, but the World War II backdrop means happily ever after either isn’t likely or won’t come cheap. I appreciated not being able to predict the characters’ fate.
The Music in Her Mind is one of those books you can’t help but enjoy despite a few flaws. Even when I wasn’t certain whether I liked Alex and Lara, I was intrigued by them. I haven’t read a whole lot about the Soviets during World War II so I found that aspect of the novel fascinating, as well as horrifying, anger-inducing, and just downright sad. I might have been put off by the fast pace at the start of the story, but I was glad for it toward the end when I couldn’t wait to find out what happened.
Disclosure: I received a copy of The Music in Her Mind from BookedPR for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.