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Death of a Past Life by Robert N. Reincke
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Death of a Past Life (2008)

by Robert N. Reincke

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As a fan of both history and historical fiction I read this book quite eagerly. As opposed to accurately portrayed historical fiction where the reader gets the sense that all that happens is mostly true. This book (I have a hard time calling it a novel) works the other way around where it is clear everything truly happened. It is this aspect that also makes the book fall short of its promise.

We are introduced to a proud Russian family who took up a prominent role in Russia around the last days of the Romanov empire. We follow them through generations and find out how the various family members struggle through the major conflicts of the 20th century. Details of interiors, people, and locales give a decent sense of being there and the dialog feels real because it most likely is (was). Many very intriguing facts about the characters are introduced that would make great side plots but those are never really followed up on. For example, why did Leonid gamble so much regarding all the personal richness he had in his life?

The reader gets the sense that the author is so much focused on writing down everything his family accurately remembered that a lot of corroborative detail is left out that would make the book come alive. For example, the word Tante is frequently used to mean Aunt. It is in fact a Dutch word that does indeed mean Aunt but the text gives the strong sensation that this is a word is just something the family just used for that purpose.

All in all the book reads as a slightly novelized history book of one prominent family as they struggle through major historical events. The type is large and appears to be almost double spaced, the formatting is awkward and the space and style is inappropriately used. For example: a text in the beginning of the novel has many typos but is not set in typewriter font to indicate to the reader this was the actual raw text as written by a family member. ( )
  TheCriticalTimes | May 24, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Death of a Past Life is an enigmatic book, an epic history that feels much of the time like it doesn't know quite what it wishes to be. Throughout, we get a strong sense of Robert Reincke's passion towards his material--it is, after all, based on his own family history, we are told--but it's hard to figure out what his ultimate plan was. And unfortunately, it's even harder to say whether he executed that plan effectively.

The novel opens with a short, typo-ridden passage "From the Life of Ann K.," which we learn much later was an actual unfinished work, written by Reincke's grandfather. From this, we are transported back to Russia in 1911 and into the daily lives of the bourgeois Katschalin family. As the Bolsheviks, World War I, Stalin, and World War II gradually ravage St. Petersburg and its environs, the family becomes fragmented by circumstance and necessity. While many try merely to stay together, the toll the conflicts take on Nick, Nina, and their daughter Ann become the focal point of the story, as they struggle to merely survive through famine and hardship.

Though the plot sounds riveting, there is a substantial conflict between Reincke's highly-researched historical passages and the details of family life. Domestic scenes are often portrayed as being simple and unassuming--a prime example involves the children at play on the family's dacha--and it's surprisingly hard to get a strong sense of the family's economic status because there is so little detail about their wealth and opulence (or lack thereof). As such, when the political turmoils of twentieth-century Russia begin to take their tolls at the end of Book 1, the depth of the hardship is difficult to fathom. From an historical standpoint, however, Reincke's prose, accurate though not always objective, is clear and precise. It creates an odd disconnect, one even more disconcerting for the fact that the novel is so invested in history's impact on the family and the familiar.

Nevertheless, the novel becomes increasingly more readable and engaging as it goes on. Early scenes of domestic benignity are populated by a very large cast of characters, many of whom play little more than a passing role in the proceedings. It is a very Russian-novel gesture, for certain, and one that I imagine is rooted deeply in Reincke's desire to properly anthologize his own family history, but it doesn't give the reader an opportunity to truly sympathize with many figures. In Books 2 and 3, when the focus shifts far more explicitly onto Nick, Nina, and Ann, the work begins to capture some of that missing emotional impact: we are allowed time with these characters, and as such we feel at last for their plight.

Though Book 3 is the novel's strongest section, it suffers, as does the rest of the novel, from a strange sense of abridgement--as if the book, though almost 500 pages in length, doesn't spend nearly as much time in each year of the life as it should. Particularly in later years, perhaps because of lack of content or particularly focused memories, entire years pass in the span of a few pages, most of the time concentrating on one single conversation between two characters. The result is the sense that the novel wishes to be an epic, but simply does not have the material to sustain it. More focus on particularly powerful (if disparate) moments, rather than on what seems to be the need to cover every year of the family history, would have made the impact of the work stronger.

So too would have been a clearer focus on the novel's intent. I've noted before that the novel seems to want to be historiography, ethnography, family history, and political treatise all in one, but by the time the novel comes to an end, it's hard to decipher what its larger point has been. The epilogue, in which the author lays himself bare as a descendent of the book's characters, reads like an unfortunately cheesy afterthought, with clichéd messages about "learning from the past so that we don't repeat it" obscuring the impact of the family's ultimate triumph. It feels like just another example of Reincke meaning well but trying to do too much, trying to turn it into a "message novel" where a semi-fictional historical novel would have sufficed.

Overall, the book is quite readable and easy enough to digest--even though the copy I received, which appeared to be not a proof but a finished bound copy, featured enough typos that it was rather noticeable. It seems, in summary, to be a microcosm for the work as a whole: a well-meaning, decently executed novel that, despite its best intentions, has more imperfections than I'm sure the author intended. Death of a Past Life tries, admirably, but it doesn't feel destined to enter the pantheon of great Russian family epics any time soon.
  dczapka | Jul 16, 2009 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book is ultimately a very rewarding read, though dark and almost overwhelmingly bleak in places. There were times when I had to put it down and pick up something else. The sense of so much needlessly lost pervades all but the very beginning of the book, and even that is full of foreshadowing. There is a loss of personal wealth and the death of a lifestyle most of us can only begin to imagine, but, even more heart wrenching, is the loss of so many of loved ones. I hope Robert Reincke is planning a sequel, because I have become quite intrigued by the lives of Josephine, Nina and Anni. ( )
3 vote clamairy | Dec 21, 2008 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book is set during a fascinating and horrifying time in history and Reincke does a good job of conveying what his ancestors must have faced. However, the inclusion of all of so many people makes the book confusing. Also, many anecdotes are introduced that are interesting but don't contribute to the overall story in any way thus leading to further confusion. However I think that overall Reincke compiled his family's history into and interesting read. ( )
  barefeet4 | Dec 9, 2008 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
In this novel, Reincke retraces this grandmother's footsteps through out a turbulent period of Russian history. The novel is divided into four books. The first I found unbalanced: the author tries to introduce his family, historical events and camp the characters in a novel form; the pace is alternatively slow, fast, the style busy, academic, literary... by the second book, a rhythm settles and life starts to revolve only around Nina which makes everything much simpler; the third and fourth book are positively gripping and horrifying. Reincke does a terrific job of showing what life must have been then with conflicting emotions and constant terror - it was certainly an eye-opener.
The photos are a lovely touch although the digitization is sometimes lousy which is a shame since the pictures seem to be of good quality.
All in all, I would definitely recommend it. This personal voice recounting history is both educational and moving. ( )
  Cecilturtle | Nov 30, 2008 |
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Lovingly to Ann
In memory of Nina (1906-2008) and Nicholas (1903-1963)
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Nicholas, an old spirit weary of his life, trudges slowly into the small room where he works and sleeps.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0979424100, Paperback)

Three generations face the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century--the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, the vicious arbitrariness of Stalin's purges, mass famine during the Siege of Leningrad, the bombing of Berlin during the Nazi's final days--and relentlessly fight to insure the survival of their family. Robert Reincke bases his historical novel on the reminiscences of both his mother and his centenarian grandmother. His own family history is thoroughly investigated and transformed in this imaginative work that allows us to glimpse what it was like to live through events we read about in history books.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:52 -0400)

Three generations face the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century--the turmoil of the Russian revolution, the vicious arbitrariness of Stalin's purges, mass famine during the siege of Leningrad, the bombing of Berlin during the Nazi's final days--and relentlessly fight to insure the survival of their family. Robert Reincke bases his historical novel on the reminiscences of both his mother and his centenarian grandmother. His own family history is thoroughly investigated and transformed in this imaginative work that allows us to glimpse what it was like to live through events we read about in history books.

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