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23 August 2013
Back in March, when the year was young and the trees still bereft of leaves, we hosted a review of Josephine Saxton‘s Vector for Seven, the Readers’ Choice selection of Kev McVeigh, friend of this parish and well known to the SF Community at large. The selection and the blog post went down a treat with our readers, so we’re delighted to present a second piece by Kev, this one singing the praises of Leigh Kennedy‘s debut novel The Journal of Nicholas the American. Enjoy . . .
Nicholas Dal has the family curse. The pozhar-golava has affected the men of the Dal family going back generations to their Russian origins. To cope with it Nicholas, or Kolya, drinks heavily and tries not to get too close to people. This changes when he meets a young woman, Jack, and against his better judgement begins a relationship.
The curse is that Kolya senses other people’s feelings. The word is barely used in this novel until the final few pages, but he is an empath. This frequently overpowers Kolya, hence the drinking to dampen the sensations. Pozhar-golava approximates to ‘Fire in the head’ and throughout his journals Kolya refers to the flames coming. In one dramatic scene he collapses with a temperature of 107.
This ‘ability’ would be difficulty in itself for Nicholas, but the family secret is more than just the pozhar-golava but something darker. Two generations back something happened involving his great-uncle that nobody talks about. Now, in the USA, somebody is looking for Kolya, and he fears the worst.
Leigh Kennedy’s debut novel explores the anxieties and torments of a man with a family secret, and embarking on a new relationship. Kolya’s life is dominated by his fears, and his affair with Jack is hindered by it. But Jack has her own family issue, her mother Susanne is dying, and her family are struggling to deal with it.
Kolya’s paranoia about his past is gradually revealed in a convincing way, and gently balanced by American mistrust of Russians. Nicholas is an American, he repeatedly insists on this, but his father is Russian. They speak Russian at home, and Nicholas is also Kolya, with an accent. Jack assumes that his drinking is a Russian ‘thing’; Nicholas’ friend Gus calls him a ‘dour old Russian’; ‘Are you Commie spies?’ he is asked, and when he meets Jack’s father:
‘So, did the Communists change things a lot for your family?’ Paul asked, picking up a thread of conversation from earlier. I guessed that they, too, had seen Doctor Zhivago.
A question of identity is at the heart of most great SF novels about psychic abilities, see Silverberg’s best work Dying Inside or Joanna Russ’ disturbing And Chaos Died for instance, and The Journal Of Nicholas The American is firmly in that class. Kennedy doubles and redoubles this as Nicholas asserts his Americanness (‘I am Russian but I am an American’ he states) and as Susanne seems to be losing her identity as she approaches death.
Using the journal format Kennedy tells a story in the spaces, filtered by Kolya’s reflections. Is he being stalked because of his family’s past? Can he cope with Jack’s increasing need to share his life, and his growing feelings for her? How will the emotions around Susanne’s death affect him?
The Journal Of Nicholas The American is a novel I return to frequently, along with Leigh Kennedy’s other books. Her second novel Saint Hiroshima is not SF but shares that use of space and further explores contemporary American anxieties (the Bomb, Civil Rights, personal relationships, gender roles) and both her short-story collections Faces and Wind Angels are filled with thoughtful and provocative stories. She has long been one of my favourite authors. In under 200 pages she skilfully reveals a dramatic family saga in the shadows, convincingly portrays the anguish of a dying woman, and threads it around a poignant romance and a genuine fear of discovery.