Elisabeth Elo Visits Siberia
The Western world might mostly teach it in passing, but the Russian and Eastern European people have suffered tremendously at their own hands during most of the 20th century, millions of families mourning for their loved ones sent to the notorious labour camps known as gulags.
There lay buried the forgotten fates of innumerable people, most of them destined never to see the light of day, simply presumed dead and lost to history. This is the kind of place Elisabeth Elo takes us to in Finding Katarina M. , but to tell a story of hope rather than solely tragedy.
The book opens by introducing us to Natalie March, a successful surgeon living in Washington whose days are mostly divided between work and her ailing mother, Vera, in a rehab institution, forever scarred by her parents’ deportation to a gulag when she was just a baby. Though she might be able to heal all types of physical ailments, her mother’s pain remains the thorn in Natalie’s side, the sole illness she can never hope to mend… until one day, fate opens its hand to her.
A young Russian dancer suddenly shows up to Natalie’s office, claiming to be her long lost cousin, offering an incredible piece of news: her grandmother, Katarina, (and Vera’s mother) is very much alive in Siberia. What’s more, she is actually looking to defect and requires Natalie’s help to do so. Seeing in this opportunity a chance to heal Vera by reuniting her with the mother she thought dead all these years, Natalie sets out on a journey to the distant plains of Siberia, a foreign and at times inhospitable land with its own specific rules and customs.
Perhaps even more dangerously though, it doesn’t take long for Natalie to both meet a CIA agent and come at odds with the Russian government… and before she knows it a web, of international intrigue has wrapped itself tightly around her.
The Slow Chase
While Finding Katarina M. might be officially classified as an espionage thriller, it felt to me like one of those books which might easily fit into more than a single genre. More precisely, this book is as much about spy games as it is about family drama, which I believe creates a very interesting mixture whose effects are most apparent when looking at the pace of the story.
This is definitely what I would call a slow burner, with events unfolding relatively slowly throughout the entire thing, never exactly matching the kind of pace you would expect from a normal thriller.
In my opinion, this certainly benefits the novel as the time spent slowly developing the events is put to very efficient use. Natalie is an intelligent and cautious type of woman who always carefully considers the options before her and doesn’t jump to conclusions when analyzing the past. The weight behind the consequences of her actions is never lost on her, and I always found myself looking forward to her moments of personal meditation and self-examination; the author often attempts to present new and interesting angles from which to examine some of the larger aspects of life.
Now, with the pace being slow, does this actually hurt the espionage thriller aspect of the novel?
In my opinion it actually helps to enhance the tension on many occasions (waiting for impending doom can be even more stressful than facing it), not to mention it gives the story events a tangible importance due to their increased scarcity. Additionally, I believe if any genre is receptive to slow thrills, it’s definitely espionage as it involves battles of intelligence more than anything else.
History of a Family
As I said above, I believe this is the type of book which could also be classified as a family drama; for every moment dedicated to espionage comes one where Natalie learns new facts and lessons about her family’s history.
The journey she is undertaking perceptibly shapes her perception of her mother, herself, and her ancestors she never knew about. As you might imagine, Elo takes the opportunity to explore many timeless topics in this field, such as discovering and reconnecting with one’s roots and the strength of union shared blood affords us. The more Natalie dives into her culture she never knew, the easier it becomes to get caught up with all she is learning, almost making it a travel story in certain stages.
Speaking of travel, I would like to take a moment to discuss the author’s dedication in recreating Siberia and the local culture. Elo actually travelled there herself for the specific purpose of writing Finding Katarina M., and rarely has an author’s authentic experience shined so bright as it did here.
From the overall scenery to the small facets of people’s daily lives, the level of detail is simply astonishing as she brings to the table many personal observations you probably won’t find in tour guides or history books.
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Additionally, her experience even mirrors her character’s in the sense they are both Americans visiting a strange and relatively unknown land, which I believe makes it all the more easier to get on-board with her for the long ride.
The Final Verdict
Finding Katarina M. by Elisabeth Elo is an outstanding slower-paced espionage and family drama novel which also paints a fascinating and highly-detailed picture of Siberian life and Russian history in a more general sense.
It has its fair share of both intrigue and introspective meditation to the point where not a single moment is ever dull. If you enjoy this genre at all I highly recommend you give this book a shot.
Elisabeth Elo is an American writer from Boston with a PhD in American Literature at Brandeis University.
Throughout her storied career she had the distinction of working as a magazine editor, a high-tech product manager as well as a halfway house counselor, all while finding the time to write Pushcart-nominated short stories and scholarly articles on topics including Walt Whitman and Cinderella.
As an author she has published a few works so far, the best-known ones being North of Boston and Finding Katarina M..