309 pages
ISBN 0-670-84071-8
DDC C813'.54




Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is an editor in the College Division of Nelson Canada.


This disappointing first novel by noted critic and TV commentator
Michael Ignatieff begins with the near-drowning of the child Asya, an
experience that instills in her a lifelong “fearlessness” and
“deep attraction for destruction.” These qualities prove useful
years later, when Princess Asya Galitzine and her privileged family are
caught in the throes of the Bolshevik Revolution. Asya meets and falls
in love with a White Russian officer named Sergei, a man she will come
to regard as “my fate.” The princess is forced into a life of exile
in Paris, where she bears Sergei’s son and cavorts with Boytynsky and
Razumkin, two fellow émigrés who have deceptively Chekhovian surfaces.

Upon Sergei’s unexpected return from the war, Asya is unwittingly
drawn into a shadowy world of espionage and counterespionage, where
moral boundaries are nebulous at best. Sergei and his son become
political adversaries who champion equally noxious causes, and by the
end of World War II Asya has lost both husband and son. Flashforward to
Gorbachev’s Russia. Asya, now an old woman, returns to her mother
country for the first time since her exile to track down the elusive
Sergei, dead or alive.

This action-packed novel has “TV mini-series” written all over it.
Unfortunately, flat characterization, heavy doses of melodrama, stock
situations, and wooden prose are also part of the package. Worst of all
is the uninspiring couple at the centre of it all. (What little depth
Asya has is reserved for secondary characters like Razumkin.) In crude,
pseudo-Lawrencian terms, Sergei is equated with action, and Asya with
being and passivity. Despite their yin-and-yang pairing, these two
characters are soulmates in vacuity. Asya’s obsession with Sergei is
unaccountable, except as an exercise in the shallow in quest of the more


Ignatieff, Michael., “Asya,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,