Review: Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, by Janet Fitch
Reviewed by Susan Lang, Peregrine Book Company Event Coordinator
Chimes of a Lost Cathedral is Janet Fitch’s wonderfully satisfying sequel to her compelling page-turner, The Revolution of Marina M. (If you still haven’t read that one, it is now out in paperback). In the first volume, 16 year old Marina, a bourgeois princess and accomplished poet, rejects that life and family to join the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, forcing her to find internal resources to survive a world she could never have imagined.
When Volume Two opens, it is 1919; she is nineteen and pregnant after three years fighting to stay alive in the tumult of her collapsing country. Marina is desperate to find work, shelter and the crucial proletarian papers in the outlying burg of Tikhvin. Although at first she is grateful to find work as a maid, it doesn’t take long for her to see that the realities of that new life could lead to a lifetime of oppressive misery. “Pregnant or not, I worked like a mule ... boiling sheets and tending to the one toilet we all shared .... so many beds, heavy and awkward, mattresses that needed beating”— and so on, while she dreams of Dickens and Tolstoy and Dostoevski. And when a good-natured railway man wants to marry and take care of her and her unborn child, she feels the prison door about to slam shut behind her.
Just before that can happen, the Red October–an agit-prop train boldly painted with red wheels, futuristic figures and carrying a circus cast of actors — steams into town. Marina hurries along toward it with the rest of the excited citizens, “as fast as [her] swollen body would allow.” As the “Literary-Instructors” perform their propaganda, a “big peasant” from their cast pushes to the fore. “Beard or no beard, I would know him anywhere,” Marina tells us. “How well my husband looked.” She hasn’t seen him since he and his group left for Moscow and the center of the revolution.
She takes off her actual peasant scarf to allow him to see her, and soon she is riding the Red October herself, climbing to ride the roof of the train, pregnant or not, “the wind pounding my face, howling in my ears .... It was glorious and terrifying.”
Lest you think I am providing plot spoilers, rest assured that Marina’s escape on the Red October takes place on only page 70 of this 725 page novel. The book is just getting started. And if you would like to ask Janet Fitch anything about her passionate re-creation of the terrible tragedy of the Bolshevik Revolution, she will be at the Yavapai College Literary Southwest event on Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. Watch the Peregrine website for information closer to the event.