Bequest - A.K.Shevchenko - 19/01/10

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Many Ukrainians harbour a long-held belief that a hoard of lost Cossack gold is lying somewhere in the dusty vaults of the Bank of England...

If discovered, of course, the 250-year-old treasure could transform this post-Soviet independent country into one of the richest players in Europe.

It is a national dream based on the legend that the 18th century Cossack Hetman Polubotok deposited the gold in the London bank and then made a will which would enrich his descendants and allow a future independent Ukraine to inherit the vast majority of it.

Ukrainian-born Anna Shevchenko heard the story many times from her historian grandfather and, using his own diaries as inspiration, she set out to become what the Soviet system frowned upon ... a writer.

Bequest is an ambitious and intelligent debut novel taking this Ukrainian legend as its starting point and weaving from it a subtle tale of politics, power, repression, ambition and personal longing stretching back over two centuries.

Andriy Polubotok, a man claiming to be a descendant of Hetman, visits London on a mission to claim the family inheritance and enlists the services of Kate, an English solicitor whose grandfather was also Ukrainian.

But it is a dangerous mission ... not least because a huge influx of wealth for Ukraine would tip the balance of power between the newly independent country and its powerful and resentful neighbour Russia, and severely diminish the reserves of the Bank of England.

Meanwhile, Lt Taras Petrenko, a disillusioned intelligence officer with the Russian Security Service, stumbles across file N1247 in the archives and notices that three crucial documents are missing.

A Ukrainian himself, sidelined because of his now suspect nationality, he digs further into the disappearance of case notes made by Stalin's secret police and makes a discovery that could revive his flagging career.

Shevchenko's multi-layered story travels down the centuries and beyond the borders of Europe as we meet the previous generations of the Polubotok family as they try to claim the lost Cossack gold.

In France in 1748, young Sofia Polubotok makes a hazardous journey, under the surveillance of the Secret Police from St Petersburg, on a mission that her father tells her is 'bigger even than my love for you.'

And in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in 1962 history student Oksana Polubotok is ruthlessly interrogated by the KGB about her family history despite the promise of a new era of openness.

Taras and Kate both know that the stakes are high in the hunt for the gold and that the consequences are dangerous both for themselves and the countries involved...

Combining fact and fiction into a cleverly understated yet thrilling plot, Bequest throws up some great characters ... the compulsive and obsessive Taras, haunted by his childhood and cruel army bullying, and the ambitious but vulnerable Kate, another victim of her past.

An excellent debut novel...

(Headline, hardback, 19.99)