‘Pravda’ Brings St. Petersburg, Menacing and Marvelous, To Life

Edward Docx’s third novel, “Pravda,” starts off like a Dan Brown thriller. We are introduced to Gabriel Glover, freshly landed in St. Petersburg following his mother’s strange midnight call to his apartment in London. “Come tomorrow. Promise me,” she had demanded with mysterious urgency the night before. Gabriel obeys, traveling to Russia and taxiing over to her apartment only to find his mother dead on the floor.

All similarities to Dan Brown, thankfully, stop there. Instead of the murder mystery suggested by the novel’s first few chapters, Docx gives us a dark, intriguing, thoughtful study of the ripples that emanate from Maria Glover’s death, which—to put all thoughts of a thriller to rest—is caused by a stroke.

Her death and life launch Docx’s intense portrait of his characters and the Russian roots that tie them all together. It is a portrait, above all, of the strength of his characters’ familial bonds, which only fully manifest themselves following Maria’s death. The fallout from her death changes the lives of her children in huge and unexpected ways, wrenching them out of their jobs and relationships.

Maria’s death brings Gabriel and his sister Isabella to St. Petersburg, the seedy seat of their family’s history, plunging readers into the psyche of their sharp, cruel, solipsistic, and utterly absorbing father, and slowly pulling an abandoned son—the embittered, talented, consummately Russian Arkady—into the familial constellation.

Docx has a stunning talent for communicating the essence of a person, group, or place in a single brushstroke that’s incisive, sometimes strange, and always evocative. One reads, for instance, of women in a posh St. Petersburg café who “hold their mugs of coffee the wrong way round and never by the handles, the greater to emphasize their empathies.”

Docx’s skill for characterization is most clear in his slowly unfolding portrait of the father of the Glover family. The captivating Nicholas Glover is an ever-mounting pile of sometimes contradictory traits that Docx effortlessly weaves into a complex and wonderful character. At times utterly heartless, at times dedicated and loving, Nicholas is always arrestingly bright and completely human. He is cruel to his children—their memories of him inevitably include insults and beatings—and abandons his wife. Yet Nicholas also has a much softer, thoughtful, and loving side. He remains dedicated to his wife even ten years after he leaves her, because, as he cryptically explains, “she understood the geometry of things.”

But while Docx’s talent for character creation is impressive, it can sometimes lead him toward caricature. It is as if Docx, justly reliant on his tremendous skill for description, occasionally lets himself become a little lazy in crafting the characters he describes, some of whom retain the strange, menacing darkness that would fit better in a Dan Brown novel. Selfish, conniving, and sometimes senselessly cruel, these characters seem inappropriately one-sided alongside the other rich characters who populate the novel. Still, what would be cardboard cut-outs in another author’s hands seem almost real in Docx’s. “Be as charming as champagne,” one solely conniving character thinks to himself as he winds himself up for extortion. His eloquently worded thoughts almost make one forget that, rather than a fully developed character, he is for Docx more of a manifestation of greed.

These characters, however barely sufficient as portraits by themselves, contribute to the backdrop of Docx’s great portrait of St. Petersburg, a city that the author manages, in a passage here and a line there, to sketch with wonderful dexterity. In just a sentence Docx communicates the city’s decay and darkness: “A brutalized dog whimpered in the shadow of the crumbling courtyard. Six P.M now in Petersburg.”

Docx’s St. Petersburg is a living city imbued with the qualities of its gloomy, exotically seedy history. As much as the novel revolves around the dead Maria—who, however central to the plot, is always peripheral to the character immediately at hand—it also revolves around St. Petersburg and what the city represents. Even in a description of heavy machinery, Docx evokes the city’s ominous milieu: “The crane outside the window had begun to sink into the mud below, or rather had begun to subside, so that the long skeleton finger no longer reached true to heaven but listed dangerously toward their tower block as if enacting some strange and terrible slow-motion death strike.”

For Docx and his characters, St. Petersburg comes to represent all the foreign, mysterious brutality of Russian culture. And as the plotline dips between Paris, London, New York, and St. Petersburg, it seems as if the grandeur of strange historical vibrancy that city represents not only oozes into the lives of characters living in the other cities, but also into the characters themselves, eventually filling every pore of the novel with its dark, evocative ambiance.

“Pravda” is a novel as much about the strange toughness and complexity of Russian culture as it is about its characters or its plot, and that culture richly colors every page.