The Lost Daughter by Gill Paul - book review: A very human and affecting story, full of suspense, danger, self-discovery and romance
Gill Paul is fast making the tragic demise of the Russian royal family her own special fictional property'¦
After her thrilling novel, The Secret Wife, imagining the Tsar’s second eldest daughter Tatiana secretly escaping from the house of mass slaughter in Ekaterinburg in 1918, this stunning new story focuses on Maria, her younger sister, whose miraculous survival sets her adrift amidst the menace and brutality of the Russian revolution.
And if readers start to suspect that The Lost Daughter follows much the same route as the elder sister, fear not because this gripping new Romanov rewriting is a time-slip treat as we embark on an unmissable journey into a dark chapter of Russian history.
Using a dual narrative starring two women – generations and continents apart but linked by shocking events in the past – Paul takes us from the frozen Ural mountains and teeming streets of Leningrad to 1970s Australia, and China under the rule of Chairman Mao.
Along the way, we witness cruelty, passion, loyalty, betrayal, friendship and abiding love as Maria transforms herself from pampered Grand Duchess to Soviet housewife facing hunger, suspicion, death and hardship.
With the country Tsar Nicholas once ruled with an iron fist now in the grip of a bloody revolution, the fate of Russia’s imperial Romanov family hangs in the balance as they are imprisoned in a sealed and heavily guarded house in the eastern city of Ekaterinburg in the summer of 1918.
As the royal couple’s 18-year-old daughter Maria tries to take advantage of what little opportunity there is to talk to people from the outside world, she captures the attention of two of the young guards.
Shy, kindly Peter Vasnetsov, son of a local gamekeeper, offers her friendship and reassurance, while charming, handsome and flirtatious Ivan Shorokhdov is entranced by Maria’s beauty and together they share a stolen kiss.
And when a ruthless Bolshevik firing squad moves in for the kill, one of these two men will be the means of her survival against all the odds, and a new life in which her secret past will always follow like a dark shadow.
Fifty-five years later in the sunshine of Sydney, Australia, Val Doyle is trapped in a loveless marriage to her abusive, controlling, Jekyll-and-Hyde husband Tony. Her only joy is their five-year-old daughter Nicole but the child is already starting to become a victim of her father’s unpredictable violence and Val longs to walk out on him for ever.
Her father, Russian émigré Irwin Scott, a harsh, tyrannical man she has always feared, has been estranged from Val for many years while her Chinese mother, Ha Suran, mysteriously disappeared – supposedly back to Harbin in China – when Val was only twelve.
But now her father is dying and suffering from dementia, and when Val is called to his care home, he makes a troubling end-of-life confession: ‘I didn't want to kill her.’ Was her mother murdered, what is the truth behind those chilling words?
And when she unearths hidden letters and papers at his house, Val can finally begin the task of tracing her unknown family heritage and unlocking the secrets behind her beloved mother’s disappearance, a quest in which she soon finds herself caught up in one of the world’s greatest mysteries...
With her immaculate research and brilliant storytelling, Paul achieves the almost impossible… she makes us believe we are walking through real history on a heart-thumping and emotional journey with two brave and determined women.
Maria’s experiences open a fascinating door into Russian history in the grim aftermath of war, and Val – struggling to escape her violent husband – proves to be an equally strong and inspirational character as she too learns to adapt to freedom and a very different future to the one she had once expected.
The Lost Daughter is essentially a very human and affecting story, full of suspense, danger, self-discovery and romance… a clever and complex blend of fact and fiction that pulls together the threads of two very different lives with perfect precision, and offers an unforgettable, sweeping adventure from start to finish.
(Headline, paperback, £8.99)