4 out of 4 stars
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The Dancing Barber by AC Michael begins in Bradford, Yorkshire on Good Friday in 1963 and moves between Bradford and the village of Chaplinka in the Ukraine. It is a work of fiction but the authors note say that a great deal of the background to the story is accurate. At times the tale switches back to 1933 when the Soviet Union let many Ukrainian peasants die of hunger while they let grain rot. Despite the grim background that underpins the story, it is a highly entertaining and often humorous tale.
Most of the tale takes place in Bradford where many Ukrainians settled in the 1930’s. The title character is Taras, a former top-class ballet dancer who now runs a barber shop. He teaches ballet to the local children and is preparing them to perform his version of Swan Lake. His wife Halyna is currently on strike as she feels unappreciated as she has been working in two jobs as well as cleaning the house, barber shop and ballet studio and cooking, so she is making Taras cook and clean. Their daughter Sofia also feels unappreciated by her father.
There are many key characters in the story including Klem, a poet currently living in the attic, and his cat Mister Pushkin. Many characters seem rather shallow and superficial when first introduced, but over the course of the book there are revelations about each one that drew me in and had me eager to read more. The Ukrainian community in Bradford still have ties to family back in the Ukraine and have the tendency to boast about their English lifestyles, even lying about living in stately homes, but they all have links back to the atrocities of 1933. The gossipy women with their headscarves and coats that smell of mothballs, and the men with their flat caps are masterfully portrayed.
Halyna is visited by her twin sisters Zena and Lenka who bring her news they could not put in a letter in case the Soviets read it. They are uncouth peasant women who I hated at first but, like all the other characters, liked more as I got to “know” them. The story has many other interesting characters including mafia types and an assassin masquerading as a bishop.
I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars. I was keen to keep reading about the everyday lives of the characters that were so cleverly written. I learned about a period of history I had no prior knowledge of, I only noticed one typo and I was amused and entertained by this book that was like nothing I have read before. I hope AC Michael writes more, because I really enjoyed this book.
The Dancing Barber
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