In this prequel to her Sins of a Spy series, D. B. Shuster deftly portrays Soviet Jews’ collective state of mind during the 1980s. Soviet Jews continue to face anti-Semitism; they are confined to low-paying work and are used as convenient scapegoats for others’ disappointments. Laws don’t protect them. The KGB shadows them relentlessly, especially those who, for whatever reason, are felt to be a danger to the Soviet system. These conditions are magnified by the desire of many to emigrate either to Israel or the United States. Their goal of escape makes them traitors.
The novel centers on the Reitman family — especially on clever, curvaceous Sofia, who has dedicated her life and her talents to achieving Jewish freedom from Soviet oppression. Though KGB agents are everywhere, she has found satisfaction in risk-taking and has become a spy, trained to photograph secret Soviet documents that can be used to shape world opinion and modify Soviet policy. Her handler, Paul, is a CIA agent.
When Sofia’s husband, Mendel, is released early from his five-year prison sentence for teaching Hebrew, he is a greatly altered version of the man Sofia married. It is not clear if his early release involved a deal with his jailers. Mendel won’t talk about it, and it seems that the former intimacy between them cannot be restored. He has learned to be suspicious, even of his wife.
The novel is populated by the extended family, an interesting collection of characters representing several generations. Most notable are Vera, Sofia’s younger sister, who is tormented by her classmates for being Jewish; and Edik, Sofia’s cousin, who helps Sofia with her black market fundraising operation for Jewish freedom.
Members of the KGB hierarchy form another cast of characters. Noteworthy here is Artur, an agent on the fast track who is enthralled by Sofia’s beauty and who is assigned to fake a Jewish identity, sweep Sofia off her feet, and exploit the relationship to discover if she should be arrested — or worse.
The novel brims with bravado, fear, jealousy, sympathy, chicanery, cruelty, and nobility. Shuster makes the emotional life of her major characters come fully alive while she continues to ratchet up the suspense — all of this set against a vivid rendering of Moscow’s material and political culture.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.