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The True Memoirs of Little K – Book Review

We girls at the Imperial Theater Schools were no exception. From our ranks, the emperors and the grand dukes, the counts and the officers of guards, chose their mistresses, kept an eye out for a shapely leg or a pretty face. Why, one of them described the ballet as an exhibit of beautiful women, a flower bed in which everyone can pick the flowers of pleasure. – from The True Memoirs of Little K, page 8 –

Mathilde Kschessinska was a petite Russian ballerina whose father and brother both danced in St. Petersburg. Although considered quite gifted as a dancer, she eventually attained the highest rank of prima ballerina assoluta of the Russian Imperial Ballet, due largely to her connections with the Imperial family. It was well-known that she sustained an affair with Nicholas II who succeeded to the throne following his father’s death from liver disease in 1894. Mathilde also had sexual relationships with two Grand Dukes of the Romanov family. She eventually gave birth to a son, Vova, whose paternity has never been determined.

The True Memoirs of Little K is a fictional account of Kschessinska’s life beginning with her dalliance with Nicholas II in the years before he became Tsar, and continuing through 1918 when Nicholas II and his entire family were executed by the Bolsheviks. Little K is dictating her memoirs as a 100 year old woman looking back on her life with a cynical eye. As a narrator, Little K is far from reliable – she is self-centered, manipulative, and bitter that “Niki” has thrown her over to marry Alexandra.

I could see that what Niki wanted at sixteen, at twenty-one, at twenty-six, he still wanted, and that something was not me. I was not solemn and reserved, I was not educated, I spoke only Russian, a child’s version of Polish, and a smattering of French ballet terms, and none of those was the language of the court. I had read few books, my religion mattered little to me, I was trivial, I adored cards and parties, and worst of all, I appeared half-naked on the stage. Everything I was was wrong, everything I lacked he desired. What had been for me a passion had been for him a diversion, or worse, a dress rehearsal. – from The True Memoirs of Little K, page 63 –

The actual history of Nicholas II shows that after coming to power he quickly married Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt, a German princess. Alexandra delivered four daughters before finally being able to birth a son, Alexis, who was a hemophiliac. Nicholas II became Tsar when Russia was at the height of her powers, but watched her tumble into economic and political decline. He was known for the unpopular Russo-Japanese War, repeated military failures, Bloody Sunday (where over 100 workers were killed by the Tsar’s soldiers) which sparked the 1905 Revolution, and industrial unrest. In Sharp’s well-researched novel, the facts surrounding Nicholas II’s reign as Tsar are well captured through the voice of his mistress.

Sharp does take some liberties with history, however, in the lesser known aspects of the Tsar’s life – including the paternity of Little K’s son, Vova. Through Little K’s eyes the reader learns about Niki’s dissatisfaction with his marriage and Alix’s inability to conceive an heir, which brings him back into the bed of Mathilde. It is this part of the novel which veers sharply away from history as we know it. Despite Sharp’s imaginative twists to historical facts, I found this part of the novel to be the most enjoyable. Sharp never presents Mathilde as someone we can completely trust – and tells the reader right up front that this is Mathilde’s version of the truth.

Yes, if I don’t tell, certain things will never be known, and when my memory is completely lost, even I will not know them. All will be rumor, which is nothing but the tail end of a vanishing truth. – from The True Memoirs of Little K, page 32 –

The True Memoirs of Little K is filled with lush descriptions of late nineteenth-early twentieth century Russia. Not only does Sharp capture the flavor of the Russian Imperial family, but she melds it beautifully with the world of the ballet. Her descriptions of place are wonderfully wrought as well.

The lights from the palace lit up a white and black world – brittle ice and flakes and drifts of snow, the steaming black breath from the horses and the waiting men. – from The True Memoirs of Little K, page 14 –

Ironically, what makes the novel so appealing (its amazing description), also has a tendency to bog down the plot. I found myself reading this book in spurts – being sucked in and unable to stop reading, and then finding myself lulled by the prose and wanting to take a break from it. There are many characters in the novel, all seen through Mathilde’s eyes, and sometimes it was hard to keep them all straight. On the other hand, Sharp presents the political and social history of the times with a light hand – introducing important parts in a way which was easy to grasp and retain.

Mathilde Kschessinska comes alive in Sharp’s fantastically imagined novel. Although initially I disliked her, eventually I grew to understand the mind and emotions of a woman who would do almost anything not only to survive, but to live well. Kschessinska is a strong woman who used her charm and sexual appeal to climb through the ranks of the Imperial ballet and secure a future for her son. In the end, she does not get all she wishes for, but she does achieve a measure of satisfaction. Still, I could not help but wonder what it must have been like to be Kschessinska.

The peasants believed heaven existed in some faraway cleft of the Russian steppe, where long green grass swayed and rivers of milk bubbled and foamed unseen by the living. And what kind of heaven did dancers believe in? An abandoned theater where their souls amused themselves all day in face paint and magnificent costume, perpetually playing the parts they had played here on earth to a decaying house? – from The True Memoirs of Little K, page 200 –

The True Memoirs of Little K is an absorbing read for those who enjoy historical fiction. Several readers in our discussion group for this book disliked Sharp’s inaccuracy of history involving Kschessinska’s son. This didn’t bother me much because Sharp never claims to be recording history in this work of fiction. In fact, in the author’s notes she writes:

[…] I have used excerpts from the letters and journals of the principal characters when so indicated, with the exception of Little K herself, who, when it comes to her epistles, as with everything else, serves mostly  at the pleasure of my imagination.

Recommended.

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Don’t take my word for it – check out other reviews:

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FTC Disclosure: Many thanks to the publisher who sent me this book for participation in BOOK CLUB and for review on my blog.

 

3 Comments

  1. October 2, 2011    

    I’m really interested in that time and place in history, so this book sounds really interesting to me!

  2. October 2, 2011    

    I didn’t really like Little K all that much, but I enjoyed the history that I got from this book. It was all very deep and elaborate, and I had a great time getting invested with it all, but you are right, there were a lot of characters to deal with. This was a great review, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of your analysis of this one!

  3. October 2, 2011    

    I had a similar reaction as I was reading this one. Sometimes I was completely rapt and other times I was more ambivalent.

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