*** - To The Lake
TO THE LAKE YANA VAGNER
TRANSLATED: MARIA WILTSHIRE ***
When a virulent flu epidemic sweeps through Moscow, killing hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, Anya and her husband Sergei decide to flee to a lake in the far north of Russia.
But as the wave of infection expands from the capital, they encounter obstacles, hazards and aggression as they try to navigate their way through a harsh Russian winter, with diminishing supplies of petrol and food. And their troubles multiply as Sergei agrees to takes on unwelcome guests, and Anna struggles with her own feelings of hostility and jealousy...
To the Lake was inspired by a flu epidemic in Moscow. A bestselling novel in Russia, it has now appeared in a dozen languages, and been adapted into a Netflix TV series.
One of my favourite books growing up was The Stand and although I love reading disease-based dystopian apocalypse books I will always end up comparing them to that. I understand that this is a very high standard for any book as Stephen King is a master storyteller! Although this story is an English translation new release coming out this month, it was actually first released in Russia in 2011, so the timing is somewhat either opportunistic or possibly a bit of a curse as it can now be compared to real-world experiences.
I liked how action packed the story was – with main character Anya and her extended family and neighbours rushing to get to a remote utopia as the world plunges into a flu pandemic. However, the disease itself takes such a backseat to domestic drama and human violence and corruption. I would have liked to have had more information leaking out of the shutdown city about the disease itself – how it was spreading, what the symptoms were and the timeline on how it affected people. Without that you didn’t get as much tension of whether the family would be impacted by it – it doesn’t become as much as a prevalent threat. It also meant when a major plot point involving Anya happens (no spoilers) you feel less invested as you don’t have any facts or backstory about the disease to back it up.
I also found the whole idea of waiting in their house for about a week and then running across Russia to get to a place they went to on holiday once a bit of an odd one. For one, as we’ve seen with Covid but also as demonstrated by books like The Stand, diseases are extremely difficult to contain and control. The idea that suddenly people would move in a wave away from the infected cities and start infecting others isn’t very realistic. Diseases can spread easily from small contact and surely in the days before the army were brought in it would have spread further. To add to this Anya’s husband sneaks out his ex-wife and child through the barricades so surely this could have happened with unknowingly infected people as well.
I liked the fact that Anya’s character is quite flawed, she’s insecure, jealous and makes some questionable ethical decisions. However, I’m not sure if it’s a cultural thing because the book is set in Russia and written by a Russian writer but it felt very much like we were stuck in the 1950s. The men were the ones with the plans and the guns who went on to do brave acts and the women just had to do whatever was decided, pack lunch and have mental breakdowns. The group trusted the 16-year-old son more than the 30-year-old women and that really did not sit well with me for a book being released in 2021. This also made all the flaws in Anya’s character feel just like stereotypical ‘women’ flaws than actual interesting traits.
The idea of running to safety is a good one however this motivation actually seemed like a really bad idea – 8 of them settling in a 2-person house in a tiny island when they don’t seem to have many survival skills and limited resources. I also don’t understand why they automatically just thought they could get to it when they have no claim to the place – it’s just somewhere they went on holiday once – they don’t own the property. The ending for me was also quite anti-climatic. I was waiting for a twist or something at the end that would throw the whole idea of the utopia they were aiming for out of question – but instead it just fizzled out.
Overall, To The Lake is an action packed pandemic story but it needs more focus on the disease, include less gender stereotypes and have a much more satisfying ending. Thank you to NetGalley & Swift Press for the chance to read the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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