Cracking the barrier of the first novel – having that first book published – is perhaps a more difficult goal than ever for writers. Because publishing has become more business-oriented and less willing to take risks on new writers, agents and publishers tend to look for manuscripts that exhibit certain characteristics that appeal to readers. Travis Holland’s The Archivist’s Story is an excellent example of those writing traits, and it’s a darn good read too.
The story centers on Pavel Vasilievich, a former teacher of literature, living in Moscow in 1939, just prior to the start of World War II. He’s lost his position at the university and is now working at the Lubyanka, a secret arm of the Communist government. His position, ironically, is to archive and catalog manuscripts that have been confiscated from poets, novelists and other writers for being deemed critical of the administration, before they are ultimately destroyed.
Pavel sees the writer Isaac Babel incarcerated, and watches as torture and intimidation take their toll on the once proud man. He stands by helplessly as friends are hounded and arrested by government goons. He battles against a wall of red tape in his effort to discover the truth about his wife’s death. Finally, Pavel decides to fight back – in perhaps the only way he can. He takes a story of Babel’s from the archives and hides it under his clothes before he leaves the building one night. Later he takes another. If he can keep from being discovered, these stories may survive the purge and be delivered into more understanding hands in the future.
Holland has written a book that was a perfect piece for a first-time novelist, according to his agent, Amy Williams. The story contains fewer than 100,000 words and is divided into thirty-seven brief chapters, enticing readers to keep moving forward. The language is accessible. Details and description are beautifully done. It’s clear Holland did a tremendous job of research for this book, which makes this historical fiction quite believable.
The author provides the reader with three interwoven sub-plots, each of which is developed quickly and which moves rapidly to its climax: the first, of course, is Pavel’s dilemma over the Babel stories; second is his attempt to find out the truth about his wife’s death aboard a train that was mysteriously derailed in an isolated part of the country; third is the deterioration of his mother, who has contracted Alzheimer’s Disease and can no longer be left alone. These all come together seamlessly at the novel’s climax, yielding an ending that is ultimately satisfying.
Holland is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s Creative Writing MFA program who has received Hopwood Awards for the novel and for short fiction. His short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Five Points and The Quarterly.
The Archivist’s Story
The Dial Press, a division of Random House, 2007
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