This is a book that definitely hasn’t gotten its due. So here’s a thing: if you’re sad that W.G. Sebald only managed to complete four “novels” in his lifetime, and you’ve read them all and you wish there were more, read Belomor. Which is not to say that Rothwell is a Sebald clone by any means, but the lineage is obviously there, and he is an author who can stand that comparison.
The book functions a little like The Emigrants, in that it consists of four narratives that only have thematic links (and, of course, the first-person voice telling these four stories links them as well). The first one is by far my favorite, a little Sebaldian yarn that implicates that Belomor canal (a pointless project (it was useless for commerce) dug by slave labor from the Soviet gulags and that may have killed as many as 25,000). It also brings in the Dresden firestorm and its legacy, as well as Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, which moved to Dresden in the 18th century, was stolen by the Soviets during the war, and has been relocated back to Dresden.
That should give some idea of the Sebaldian heft of this book. But it is not a primarily European focus: the Pueblo region of the United States and the wilds of northern Australia also figure prominently. This is an excellent, excellent book, hugely overlooked when it was published in 2014. I look forward to reading more Rothwell in 2016.