If you have any interest in reading the classics, then Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a name that will eventually come to your attention. The problem in trying to pick up his work is that most of his well-known works seem to be roughly equivalent to a breeze block in size. As such, when I found a book that was a collection of two of his lesser known works, The House of the Dead and The Gambler, I thought that this might be a good place to start with.
The House of the Dead is a semi-autobiographical novel about life in the Russian penal system. Taking inspiration from the four years of hard labour that Dostoyevsky spent in Siberia, the plot follows Alexandr Petrovich Goryanchikov after he is arrested for murdering his wife.
If I were to sum up this book into one overarching impression, the word “meandering” comes to mind. And when you’re writing something that is supposed to be criticism of your country’s penal system, slow and considerate is sometimes not the most effective way to express your concerns. The writing itself is decent enough, but when the subject keeps changing track whenever the narrator has a new train of thought it becomes difficult to form a definitive picture of what happens when. Additionally, the narrator will go into great detail about certain prisoners several chapters before their presence actually becomes important, so it gets interesting trying to remember exactly which of the largely faceless horde the narrative is referring to. And it really bugs me that this is the case. As I said before, the writing is good, but it’s brought down by the mild tone and seeming inability to tell the story in chronological order. If it could focus more, then it could have been a truly powerful and striking narrative. As it is, The House of the Dead is interesting, but very slow-going and ultimately a bit lacking in bite. There did also seem to be a bit of internal inconsistency as it would appear that the main character is later referred to as a political prisoner, which conflicts with the assertion that he was arrested for murder. Not that his crime actually makes any actual difference to the narrative, so it isn’t necessarily a huge issue.
Overall, The House of the Dead was a bit on the disappointing side. For something that was inspired by his own imprisonment, I had hoped for something with a bit more passion. What I got was a meandering, timeless mess of recollections that left practically no impression whatsoever. The writing was good, but if the structure isn’t there, then it leaves a lot to be desired. 2.5/5
Next review: The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky