Thursday, August 21, 2008

"Volk’s Shadow"

"Brent Ghelfi writes like Dostoevsky's hooligan great-grandson on speed," said Lee Child of Ghelfi's widely-acclaimed debut, Volk's Game.

Ghelfi applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Volk’s Shadow, and reported the following:
Three themes drive the story in Volk’s Shadow. The opening scene finds tortured hero Alexei Volkovoy contemplating all of them as he helicopters into the aftermath of an apparent terrorist explosion. Defend the motherland, secure Russia’s southern flank, and protect the innocents.

The last of those themes is illustrated on page 69.

Once again enlisted in Russia’s war against Chechen terrorists, and already investigating the brutal murder of a Russian army captain, Volk is asked by his friend Masha, an aging babushka, to search for a missing 12-year-old girl. Preoccupied, lonely without his lover, Valya, Volk prefers to decline. Instead, he agrees to help.

His decision plumbs the depths of his character, and provides a sense of the entire novel.

From Page 69:

“Things like this usually end badly. If Semerko took her a week ago, it’s probably over.”

I didn’t mean to sound so harsh. But I don’t have time for fairy tales, and I can already envision the sad scene when I tell the girl’s family a whitewashed version of the truth and watch their hopes shatter.

Masha’s blue eyes are moist. “You think I don’t know that she’s probably already dead?”

I feel small enough to crawl under the door. I start to say something, but Masha hunches over her knitting again, and I close my mouth. Thinking back, I realize that when Valya left I disengaged in a way that I never had before. Even in Chechnya I distinguished predator from prey, and acted accordingly, and my willingness to help those who were worthy was one of the things that brought Valya and me together in the first place.

I look up to see Masha watching the emotions at work on my face. She points a needle at the shelves behind me. “I have pictures that might help you make up your mind.”

Two unframed photos are laying flat on the shelf. I reach back and take them down. The top one shows an old woman hunched in a rocker, wrapped in so many blankets it is impossible to judge her size or shape. The skin of her face sags, and her white hair is so wispy that her freckled brown skull shows clearly beneath it. Behind and above her is a shrine on a makeshift shelf made from a board painted white. Thin church candles stand at each end of the board, stuck in a base of their own melted wax. Between them, plastic flowers frame a picture that I think is the same one as the second in my hand—a pretty girl in an over-the-shoulder pose that makes her appear very young.

Galina has laughing hazel eyes, curly brown hair, and skinny, little-girl legs poking from her flared polka-dot skirt. She looks nothing like Valya, either now or as I imagine Valya would have looked at the same age. Galina is soft-brown innocence compared to Valya’s smoky-white brilliance. And yet the association is impossible to resist.

I shut my eyes against the memories of the stories Valya has told me of her childhood. Stories I can’t bear to recall, stories that make me feel helpless, powerless to prevent the spreading stain of evil. When I open my eyes again, Masha’s gaze meets mine.

“Do whatever you have to do, Alexei. Please. Just find her.”
Read "Volk's Dossier," and learn more about Volk's Shadow at the publisher's website.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue