Asya, the heroine of Michael Ignatieff's novel of revolution and exile, is born into an aristocratic Russian family in 1900. As a child, she nearly drowns walking out over the thawing ice beneath which the River Vasousa roars. She has a vision there of a great skater. Her brush with death changes her and leaves her with a belief 'even when fear had her in its clasp ... that it would let her go.' The reader is thus guaranteed a courageous heroine. And a beautiful one. She is no Jane Eyre with only grit and tenacity to compel a hero's love: 'she had inherited her mother's tall thin good looks. "You look like a fine pair of Borzoi hounds," Father used to say of them in his jocular manner, meaning that they were fineboned and delicate of feature, with long, finely tuned limbs ... She had curly black hair, pale white skin and lustrous black eyelashes.' But her father admires most her strong chin, wide downy upper lip and moth-grey eyes. About such a heroine a vast amount of tosh could be written. Ignatieff's novel is subtitled 'a love story', which suggests it will rise, for better or worse, into the upper emotional register. Despite every opportunity of scene and action, it never does. He is too self-aware, or perhaps too fastidious, to abandon himself to a coloratura line. Instead, he chills Asya's character to the point where he as narrator can safely handle it: 'When in later life people said she was cold, she never disagreed. For she knew, and some inner recess of her body never forgot, how cold the river torrent had been.'
LRB 21 March 1991 | PDF Download