The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Only connect…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Narrated by Beata Pozniak, Mark Bramhall, Rustam Kasymov

Leningrad, 1937: in the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation, a failed artist spends his days airbrushing enemies of the Soviet regime out of history, while retouching pictures of Stalin to ensure that he always looks great – in fact, getting younger by the year. The artist understands the danger of photographs, so when his brother is killed by the regime, he persuades his sister-in-law to destroy all pictures of him. But he begins to paint his brother’s face over those faces he has been tasked with removing, so that over time his brother appears in many pictures, even alongside Stalin. Then, as a small act of rebellion, he leaves a trace of a ballerina he has been told to erase – an act that will cost him dearly…

Kirovsk, 2013: a chorus of the women of this poisoned industrial town tell the story in first person plural of Galina, granddaughter of a ballerina who had been sent to Siberia after falling foul of Stalin’s regime. Galina’s beauty allows her to rise out of the poverty of her beginnings, becoming a beauty queen and marrying the 13th richest man in Russia. Along the way, she breaks the heart of her first love, and perhaps also her own…

Grozny, Chechnya, 2003: since the local museum burned down, the Deputy Director of Regional Art has been forced to take on the role of head of the tourist board – a difficult task in a city still scarred by war…

These are the three locations in which this collection of stories take place, over the period of the last century. Although each story is separate and could easily be read on its own (in fact, I believe some of them were first published as individual short stories in various papers and magazines) they are so beautifully interlinked that the eventual effect is to create something that really must be considered a novel. The central linking stories are those of Galina and her first love, Kolya, who later becomes a soldier in the war in Chechnya; and of a painting by the Chechen artist, Zakharov – the painter is real, the painting, as far as I can gather, is an invention of the author. The painting is repeatedly altered by the people into whose hands it falls over the decades, till it becomes a kind of metaphor, partly for the way history can be altered to suit the agenda of the historian, and partly of the different perceptions people can have of the same events.

Through the stories we gradually learn the history of Kirovsk through the people who have lived there. A small town founded to house the workers in the nearby apatite mines, everything is poisoned by the pollution from the mineworks – the air, the water, the people, a huge proportion of whom die young from cancer. A place so ugly that the wife of the local Communist Party boss had a forest created from metal and plastic to provide a little beauty (another invention, but made entirely believable in the context). A place where many of the present-day residents have links to those dissidents exiled to the north under Stalin’s regime. A place where being different has always been dangerous – where mothers believe the best gift they can give their daughters is to bring them up to be unremarkable.


This book will undoubtedly appear in my Book of the Year round-up – the stories are so wonderful I really want to tell them all to you. The first story, Leopard – the one about the failed artist – blew me away with its power and deep humanity. It’s moving, frightening and funny all at the same time. The writing is incredible – there are sentences which made me cry at the beginning and had me laughing by the end, and vice versa. The pacing is perfect, slowly stripping the layers away to reveal, not the simple core of the character, but his entire complexity – the mix of fear and courage that have defined his actions and will determine his fate. Sobbed buckets, I did! And yet I laughed too, in places, and the ending left me with a mix of hope and despair – a belief that redemption is possible, but only remotely.

And this sets the tone for the rest. Some of the stories are tragic, some more uplifting, but none are monotone – each has moments of heartbreak and, not joy perhaps, but fellowship and humour, humanity breaking through in even the most inhumane circumstances. The characterisation is superb throughout – so many characters and all very different, but each ringing entirely true; no real heroes or villains, just people trying to get through their lives as best they can. Family is at the heart of it, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, brothers, lovers. Marra’s sense of history is impeccable as we see the changes in society over the decades, and he matches it with changes to the language he uses in each different time period. In format, the book is designed like an old mixed cassette tape, with an A- and B-side, each consisting of four longer stories, and an “interval” in the middle, made up of short sections which explain the reason for the format and provide many of the links that eventually bring the thing together into one complete and immensely satisfying whole.

Anthony Marra

I listened to the Audible audiobook version, and the narration is wonderful – if you can take audiobooks, then I highly recommend listening to this one rather than, or as well as, reading it. Each of the narrators speaks with a Russian accent, and each deals brilliantly with the changes in tone between emotionalism and humour, not overplaying either but letting the words speak for themselves. I often struggle to concentrate on audiobooks, but not this one – it held my attention through every word, and despite the complexity of all the links I never found myself lost. It took me a while to attune to each voice – there are three narrators, two male and one female – but once I had, it seemed in each case as if no other voice could have spoken these words. A stunning performance of a stunning book – my highest recommendation for this one.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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Audible Link UK
Audible Link US

48 thoughts on “The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

  1. I really want to read this one. I’ve read some extracts – the section about the museum – and it was this grotesque humour that hides very serious issues which I know all well and really like (reminiscent of Hrabal as well).

    • I always love when there’s a bit of humour in these novels that are looking at serious subjects – it stops them from getting too grim. And anyway, even when life is pretty bad there is usually some humour around so it feels more realistic to me too. I think/hope you’ll enjoy this one – I thought it gave a great picture of life both during and after the USSR period…

  2. Wow. This does sound brilliant and with my fascination with all things Russian, an essential read. I shall steel myself for the tragedy and have a hefty supply of tissues at the read! It’s on the list 🙂

    • Ah, if you like audiobooks you’re in for a treat! It did take me a while to get “tuned in” but I loved all three of the narrators… in fact, I kinda fell in love with one of them! 😉

  3. This one sounds fantastic, FictionFan! I love it that the stories are at once separate and connected; that takes talent. And it sounds like the writing style just makes it all that much better. I’d already been hearing good things about this one, and now it’s moved from radar to wish list. Thanks – I think… 😉

    • Really a brilliant one, Margot – the book of the year so far for me, I think, and one that will be hard to beat! Yes, it was about the fourth story before I realised the stories were all connected – it’s very subtle at first, but by the end they all tie together so that you feel as if you’ve read a novel rather than a collection of stories. If you get time to read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 😀

  4. Just from your review, I can tell how much you loved this book. That makes me want to read it. It does sound like a special book. I have never listened to an audio-book before but I will look for a hard copy of this. Hopefully the experience will be the same. Great review!

    • Thank you! I really did love it – each story was different, but the connections running through them meant it felt more like a novel in the end. I’m not usually a big fan of audiobooks, but the narrators of this one were so good! However, I’m quite sure it will work just as well on paper – I’d like to read it in the traditional way myself one day. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 😀

  5. This sounds good. My usual diet on audiobooks is thrillers and crime novels – I’ve been looking for something to tempt me away from that well trodden path and I think I’ll make it this!

    • I’m usually not very good at novels on audiobooks – keep losing concentration and missing bits. But these narrators were so good, and the book itself is wonderful, so I didn’t have that problem at all. If you do get a chance to listen to it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 😀

    • I haven’t read his earlier novel but I certainly will now! Yes, I felt his grasp on the history was great, and yet he avoided the trap of doing an info dump – he just let the history feed naturally through the story instead. Brilliant stuff – hope you enjoy this one as much as I did! 😀

  6. How fun that you were able to feel so many emotions in one story. I did a class visit recently (it was another professor’s class and I was the guest) to discuss one of my stories that the professor assigned them to read. They asked what my goal is with a story, and I described how I always want my readers to be dragged through multiple emotions, but I have to earn their emotional responses. It’s not easy to do, which is why I have on a few stories that actually accomplish what I set out to do 🙂

    • Yes, that’s really what I look for in a story – life is rarely either all grim or all fun, it’s a mix, and when a book manages to reflect that, then it feels more realistic to me. These characters were wonderful – they went through tough times, but were entirely human in the way they reacted to them. Great stuff! A new favourite writer, for sure!

  7. This sounds brilliant and you’ve made me sad that I’m quite so rubbish at listening to audio books! The ability of the author to elicit so many different emotions through one story is a rarer talent than I’d like so maybe I’ll have to try this one for myself.

    • It is brilliant! A new favourite writer, for sure! As you know I’m not very good at audiobooks either usually – keep losing concentration and missing bits, which is why I tend to listen to stories I already know. But these narrators just worked so well, they had me spellbound! I’m sure it will work just as well on paper though, so if you do decide to go for it I hope you love it as much as I did! I’ll probably want to read it the traditional way myself one day… 😀

    • I’m so glad it was recommended to me – I hadn’t really heard about it before, but now he’s become one of my must-read authors! Yes, I prefer when people are normal too – most of us aren’t all good or all bad, just struggling along. Hope you enjoy it when you get to it! 😀

  8. Great review, FF! Say no more – I’ll add it to the pile along with “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena”. Have you read that one, too?

    • Thanks, Naomi! I haven’t read A Constellation yet, but needless to say it’s now on my list – he’s become a new favourite writer after only one book. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 😀

  9. I did not enjoy Marra’s Constellation of Vital Phenomena all that much, so I was never much tempted to pick up this book. Well, you moved it into the must-read pile. Now I’m off to see if perhaps I can get an audio version of it.

    • Really? I haven’t read that one, though needless to say it’s now on my wishlist! So I don’t know whether this has the same style – but I do hope you enjoy it! And I hope you do manage to get the audio version – it’s not often I recommend the audio rather than the paper, but I really felt these narrators added something special to the book… 😀

    • That’s a pity about the audiobook, but I’m certain this’ll be a great one to read too – in fact, I’d like to read it the traditional way myself sometime. I really hope you enjoy it as much as I did – a fab book! 😀

  10. I am so glad you enjoyed this wonderful story web. I too was totally brought into the devastating and hopeful world Marra evokes and gloried at his art in creating such a satisfying web. I wondered how this would work as an audio book, in terms of keeping track of the multiple cross references among the stories, but after your review, I want to read it again via audio!

    • Isn’t it a fantastic book? All the links feel so natural – not at all forced. In fact I think I was at the third story before I realised they were all connected, but then looking for the various strands to reappear became part of the pleasure. I’m so glad you recommended this one to me – thank you! And I suspect you’ll love the audio too. I really thought each of the narrators did a wonderful job – almost understated, but with a complete empathy for the stories they were telling…

  11. Enjoyed the review. Of course I would read it. But the thought of narration in Russian accent sounds fabulous.

    • Normally I prefer reading too, but the voices of the narrators for this one just worked so well I couldn’t imagine I’d have enjoyed reading it more. It’s one I’d listen to again, and I don’t often feel that way about audiobooks… 🙂

  12. I found this book because I was searching for something that would make me feel what I felt reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. In the same ways, both books are so heart-wrenchingly humane. I wish there were more Marra novels!

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