This is one of those jewels, those diamonds you find in the sand and can’t help but be so excited that you talk about it with your friends. That’s how I heard of it, from a friend, and now I am passing the praise along. This is an amazing and exceptionally well-written book!
The Diamond Eye, by Kate Quinn, is a historical fiction based heavily on the real life of one Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Soviet lady sniper who fought in World War II. She is said to have put over three hundred invading Hitlerites into the ground, earning her the nickname Lady Death. She was so notable that she was selected for a goodwill mission to America, to build support for sending military aid to Europe as well as the Pacific, during which tour she surprisingly became BFFs with none other than the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt.
Before the war, Lyudmila was an aspiring historian, largely a normal girl from a good family. When she was fifteen, she met a gentleman (not really) by the name of Alexei Pavlichenko, who promptly seduced and impregnated this girl and then abandoned her a month after their son was born. She raised her son and continued her studies with the help of her parents, and she earned her certifications in marksmanship as well. Then the Nazis invaded and, faced with what they would do to her family, to her son, she enlisted in the army in their defense. She fought alongside hundreds of thousands of comrades who made the Nazis pay steeply for every inch of ground, even while they, too, paid quite steeply for their efforts. She fought, she killed, she made friends and buried comrades, she witnessed all the horrors of war, she was badly injured several times, she fell in love with a handsome officer, she became famous for her dispatch of an accomplished enemy sniper and was used in propaganda to encourage her people, she won a number of American hearts as well during her visit and her tour of the country, she eventually passed on all of her skills to the next generation of a thousand sniper women as an instructor, and, finally, she survived the war and settled down with a new husband, raising her son and becoming the historian she always wanted to be.
That is a lot of quality storytelling fodder, right there!
There are, of course, some liberties taken by Quinn, which she is upfront about in the afterword. As is the way of storytellers adapting real-life accounts into novelized format, she altered for economy, added for color and flair, filling in the empty spaces and providing plausible answers and resolutions to many threads which the real historical accounts left dangling. This is not, and should not be treated as, any sort of official or truly accurate biography. It is a real woman’s story that has been made more palatable to consume as a novel. It cannot be entirely accurate, but the heart of it is true.
And it is a truly fascinating read!
For one thing, to see the war from the Soviet civilian and soldier’s perspective is not something I have experienced very much. Their mindset and way of life, what drove them to fight and die in such massive numbers, was something I had hardly ever considered. It made me see the people of the USSR in a new light, and, in complete honesty, it made me feel very sad for them. The realize how these men and women, much like the soldiers of my own homeland, selflessly gave everything they had to protect their families from Nazi atrocities, and to avenge those who could not be saved, was powerful. It demands a measure of respect, and it made me feel quite sad for them, knowing that everything that Hitler had his army do to them would ultimately pale in comparison to what Comrade Stalin did to his own people, the people these soldiers fought and died for, was heartbreaking.
I don’t usually dwell much on an author’s writing style, but Quinn displays an intriguing style that somehow feels both personal and professional. The story she weaves together with history is relayed to us, the audience, in a fashion where one can believe that a soldier is giving the account. That’s quite a trick to pull off, maintaining an emphasis on what would be the hard facts of an experience while simultaneously entrancing the reader with the poetry of the soul. Perhaps this soldier had to give this report a number of times, but now is able to share it over a fire with friends, as she marshals her memories for the memoirs she is compiling. It is very well done!
With this style, Quinn relates the tale of Lady Death with all of its attendant humanity. This is not one of those larger-than-life figures that comes out of myth, legend, and the frozen wilds of the north, but a real woman, a real person, with real struggles and ordeals, suffering real loss and experiencing real triumph. She’s shy at times and loud at other times, humble of herself and proud of her defense of her country, capable of smiling, laughing, and shooting three hundred enemies dead. She is both invincible and vulnerable. She’s a soldier in the Red Army and a woman under the Soviet Union, the gravity of which is shown to us rather than told. And where her detractors insist that a woman could not possibly stay sane while doing that much killing, it is presented in a perfectly sensible manner. She’s a mother, after all and I invite anyone to name anything in this world that is more naturally dangerous than a mother.
The only thing I found to be unrealistic – and there was plenty of realistic detail in this story – was when Lyudmila confronted a sniper in the USA, a would-be assassin of the second President Roosevelt. Not that the confrontation itself was implausible, and I loved her victory. It was the fact that, there having been so such incident in real-life history, Quinn had to have the characters decide to keep it quiet. Which makes no sense whatsoever. I mean, with Roosevelt wanting to get America into the European theater, and the Soviets wanting America to do so, and the lady sniper’s American tour already being a resounding success, I can think of nothing else that would so thoroughly guarantee America entering that fight with everything it had than for the American president to be almost assassinated but saved by a Soviet soldier who was already famous and popular. Had it actually happened, they would have wasted no time crowing about it from shore to shore. Roosevelt would have been raised even higher as a paragon, all of his detractors labeled as outright traitors overnight, and the Soviets would have been seen as brothers in arms in desperate need, with Russia’s now-favorite daughter adopted as America’s most dangerous sweetheart. In short, it would have been one of the grandest coups in human history, and there is no way they would not have capitalized on it.
With the exception of that singular detail, however, I found The Diamond Eye to be enthralling in every respect. Quinn obviously put a lot of work into this, and her work shines brilliantly. I find myself possessing a sudden, keen interest in reading all of her work. My TBR pile just got a number of additions to it! 🙂
Rating: 9 out of 10.
Grade: solid A-Plus!