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Fiona Erskine on The Starlings of Bucharest

We tend to share extracts or author interviews when we take part in blog tours, but today we're delighted to have Fiona Erskine as a guest with her brilliant review of Sarah Armstrong's The Starlings of Bucharest. The book was published in paperback on April 22nd, and is now available from all good bookstores, as well as from our online shop.

We tend to share extracts or author interviews when we take part in blog tours, but today we're delighted to have Fiona Erskine as a guest with her brilliant review of Sarah Armstrong's The Starlings of Bucharest. The book was published in paperback on April 22nd, and is now available from all good bookstores, as well as from our online shop.

I first visited Russia in 1977 and Romania not long afterwards; this novel took me right back to the strange dichotomy for western visitors lifting the iron curtain and peeking east.

On the one hand the lack of advertising billboards, traffic free streets, clean and beautiful public spaces coupled with a feeling of complete personal safety was delightful.

But the drab clothes and houses, the terrible food and service, the empty shops, the obvious ‘minders’ who either followed or ‘befriended’ visitors, the relentless propaganda and absurd restrictions became wearying.

Sarah Armstrong evokes that strange cold war era and colours it in with textures and colours and scents and emotions. And luminous, fully developed, complex characters.

Ted moves to London to get away from the working-class fishing community he was born into. Hoping to train as a journalist, he moves to London and slides into debt. Things look up when he is given the opportunity to go to Romania to interview an art film director and then attend a Moscow film festival.

But others are watching him. And listening.

“The threats people hold over us are most often imagined. We even create them for ourselves.”

What struck me most forcefully was the sinister brilliance with which the security services fished for recruits. First identifying potential by observing the quarry in minute detail: how they dressed, spoke, ate, drank, flirted; itemising their possessions; listening in to their calls; examining their waste-paper. Then selecting the bait to match the target – beautiful temptress or tragic parent and finally reeling them in through their hidden desires, ambitions or weaknesses.

There has never been a better book on the art of listening. It’s a textbook in the art of manipulation. Or, what we call in the west, management of people.

“I never knew I had anything to give, anything anyone wanted.”

Poor Ted has never been listened to before.

Although this is a stand alone novel, for those (like me) who adored The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt it is a double delight to meet some familiar characters again, seen from a very different angle.

The prose is beguiling - deceptively clean and simple - Alice Munro meets John le Carre.

The Starlings of Bucharest is one of the finest books I have read this year. Haunting and resonant, I can’t wait for the next book in the Moscow Wolves series.

Fiona Erskine

Fiona Erskine

Sarah Armstrong

Sarah Armstrong