tsar of love and techno book coverReviewed by Jax Kep

The history of Russia is told through separate, but interwoven stories in Anthony Marra’s exceptional The Tsar of Love and Techno. While expertly playing with narrative points of view, Marra crosses through time and moves the stories of several families through Russia’s volatile past. Each separate story (divided into “A” and “B” sides of a cassette mix tape with a longer story, or “Intermission” breaking them up) adds a little more to the vast, sweeping story, and careful readers will take note as to what happens to main characters in one story, who morph to ancillary characters in the next.

As Marra did in his excellent A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, the wars that have plagued Russia since the early twentieth century are told through the eyes of those living them – the horror, the hunger, the acceptance of cruel fates. He successfully tells one story from the perspective of six gossipy girls, whose chatter leads to sad consequences.

Two locations are the settings for most of the action: Kirovsk, a Siberian mining town and Grozny, a countryside in Chechnya. Each is described with such attention to detail by Marra that they become fully realized places that the reader can see and smell. The mining town has artificial woods made out of metal and plastic called the White Forest, where across several stories, turning points take place. Wolves have returned to the White Forest, and they are a great metaphor for how savage life can be in Russia. The countryside is the setting for one of the most heartbreaking scenes. Marra lets the action happen off the page, which was a brilliant decision as it makes the reader focus not on what happened, but how it affected others.

Themes of family, especially the bond between brothers, runs strong through each story, as well as the love and sacrifices for parents and children. Stories from contemporary Russia include the realistic assumption that drugs are now involved in everyone’s survival.

Heartbreakingly, epically, each story reaches their natural conclusions, with some happy and some sad endings. The last story, “The End,” was so beautiful and poetically written and it perfectly captured the mood of the book. An absolutely beautiful and graceful book that is one of the best of the year.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Jax is in an accountant at a hedge fund. She resides in NYC with her husband.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Hogarth. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.