4 out of 4 stars
Share This Review
The Dancing Barber by A.C. Michael is a historical novel written in six acts like a work of theater and such a grand play it would have been. I would certainly have paid admission to see it. It is a lively tale of the enduring Ukrainian spirit and it is hilarious as it is enthralling and uplifting. After reading it, I had no choice but to give it a full 4 out of 4 Stars and enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who is in the mood for intrigue, folksy charm and generally strange happenings.
It is the Autumn of 1933 and you are in the small village of Chaplinka in Ukraine to bear witness to the suffering of the last Uki family that still have their own farmland. Though they have had all their crops and animals confiscated, they are determined to resist the demands of the Soviet regime to join the Collective Farm. Fast forward 30 years and our setting is now the city of Bradford in Northern England. Here we are introduced to another group of Ukrainian characters, and quite an eclectic mix they are! A charismatic man with a penchant for fine teas and purebred cats, an imperious ballet teacher prone to fits of cane whipping rage and twin sisters who, though considered the loveliest in all of Chaplinka, have traveled a great distance only to be met with more horror than admiration. These are but a few of the major players in this novel.
What do these two seemingly disparate groups of people have to do with one another? you may ask. Well, you will just have to read on to find out, because I certainly won’t ruin it for you. Even if I wanted to, it would be quite difficult, because the answer is far from easy. Connections between events and people are rarely, if ever, as clear or as superficial as they seem at first glance. There are many “ah-ha!” moments in this book and cliffhangers and new revelations abound in each chapter. The more you read, the harder it is to put down, as you realize that everyone and everything are interconnected into one elaborate tapestry. I am so grateful this book was so masterfully written for without the author’s ability to leave us wanting more at every turn, the length of this novel (more than 800 pages) would surely have been insurmountable.
While important, the breakneck pace at which this book proceeds is far from the only reason to pick it up. This novel is filled to the brim with humor. While reading I have chuckled at the descriptions of characters within, giggled at the author’s creative wordplay and guffawed as a particularly ridiculous scene reenacted itself in my mind. Spoiler alert: there is poop in this book, lots and lots of poop. (And I love a good poop joke) However, don’t take this to mean the entire work is crass . . . far from it. A lot of the humor is situational and many of my favorite comedic moments come from cultural misunderstanding. Some examples would include the idea of what is appropriate to have for dinner and the best means of cooking large quantities of food.
And that leads us to just another thing that makes this book unique, the many references to the culture. Though much of them comedic, some simply provides charm. The text is peppered with terms like durak (used as an insult) to headscarves and flat caps (used to identify Ukrainian women and men). An abundance of information about Easter traditions, Ukranian foods, music and dance weave in and out of the narrative with ease. I felt these additions gave the book a great feeling of authenticity. It is easy to see this author has great enthusiasm for his subject.
But like any good historical fiction writer, he does not just focus on positive or charming aspects. Not by far . . . There is also a great deal involving relations between the Ukrainian people and the Soviet Union. There are some parts that show the true evil with which people can treat others and a great deal of import revolves around an event taking place in 1933 that involved a lot of death and wasted food. This event is pivotal to the entire story and defines in some way all of the characters and their actions. How the author made this book so light-hearted is quite the mystery to me.
For all these reasons and more, it was simple to rate this novel. I genuinely enjoyed it and hope to read more of this author’s work. It is a rare ability, at least it seems to me, to make history interesting and dare I say, fun? This work touches on all of the reader’s emotions, thanks to it’s simultaneously realistic and over the top characters. To anyone who reads this review I say, Give it a try! You won’t regret it.
The Dancing Barber
View: on Bookshelves | on Amazon
Like Ginya's review? Post a comment saying so!