The main action of Michelle Butler Hallett’s complex, absorbing historical thriller Constant Nobody takes place in 1937, primarily in Moscow, capital of the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin maintains an iron grip on power. His paranoid and ruthless regime does not tolerate opposition, and the country is approaching the convulsive zenith of what became known in the West as The Great Purge: a campaign of official terror and repression that from 1936 to 1938 claimed, by some counts, more than a million victims.
Politics aside, however, Constant Nobody is also a moving tale of love in a dangerous time.
Michelle Butler Hallett begins the narrative in the Basque Country of Spain, where the Civil War is raging. Temerity West is a young British agent posing as a nurse. Kostya Nikto (whose last name literally means nobody), operating undercover as a journalist, is an NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) agent who has been dispatched to Spain to liquidate members of a communist political organization that opposes Stalinism. Kostya and Temerity encounter one another in a war zone: under the most terrifying circumstances imaginable. Kostya, after carrying out the assassination as instructed, and knowing that protocol demands Temerity be killed as well, instead, for reasons he can’t explain, spares her.
A few weeks later, Kostya is back in Moscow reeling from physical and psychological wounds suffered in Spain and working out of NKVD headquarters, where everyone is stressed and fearful as the purge continues unabated with even long-time Stalin loyalists falling out of favour. Temerity is also in Moscow on a new assignment, posing as a language instructor named Margaret Bush working for Comintern (Communist International was a global organization that promoted communist ideologies). A seasoned agent, she is cautious, watchful and discreet. But this is Moscow in 1937, and nobody is safe, least of all an attractive young woman alone on the street. When Kostya and Temerity encounter one another again, it is under very different if equally perilous circumstances. Temerity is rescued only because Kostya recognizes her and understands the fate that awaits her. Driven to act on her behalf for a second time, he manages by subterfuge to extricate her from a situation that he realizes will leave her physically and emotionally shattered. Then, with limited options, understanding the risk, he smuggles her into his apartment.
Much of the remainder of the novel is devoted to Kostya and Temerity’s tempestuous summer of 1937: Temerity is confined, a virtual prisoner, to Kostya’s cramped flat. But she is not the only prisoner: both of them are walking a thin line, hemmed in by a political climate that shifts without warning, trapped in a world where allegiances are often illusory, trust is impossible and danger lurks around every corner. Under these conditions, the ebb and flow of raw emotion take a toll. Inevitably they clash. However, they also look to each other for solace and eventually reach a sort of détente. Though this too has its drawbacks: the tentative and brittle state of devotion and mutual dependence that binds them together may provide physical and emotional gratification, but it also leaves them feeling even more exposed and vulnerable. Their romance builds during a pressure-cooker of sweltering summer months, while the shadow of suspicion spreads over the city and darkens the halls of power. Finally, with former allies turning into enemies and Kostya’s NKVD defenders falling by the wayside, they are forced to act, and their lives are altered forever.
The unrelenting psychological tension and occasional brutality in these pages allow few opportunities for the reader to catch his breath. Some familiarity with Soviet history is helpful, perhaps essential, to making sense of the motivations of the many characters. As we have seen in her previous books, nothing falls outside the scope of Michelle Butler Hallett’s huge talent. In this novel she explores the psychology of fear as few are able and does so with absolute confidence. Temerity West and Kostya Nikto emerge into the reader’s mind fully formed: enduring, breathing, anguished individuals with richly contradictory, troubled inner lives. Without a doubt, Constant Nobody is a difficult, sprawling, challenging novel, but its power is undeniable. It represents a clear triumph of the imagination. The sheer artistry that has gone into shaping and writing this story is nothing short of spectacular.
A Miramichi Reader “Best Fiction of 2021” choice!
Michelle Butler Hallett, she/her, is a history nerd and disabled person who writes fiction about violence, evil, love, and grace. The Toronto Star describes her work as “perfectly paced and gracefully wrought,” while Quill and Quire calls it “complex, lyrical, and with a profound sense of a world long passed.” Her short stories are widely anthologized in Hard Ol’ Spot, The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, Everything Is So Political, Running the Whale’s Back, and Best American Mystery Stories, and her essay “You’re Not ‘Disabled’ Disabled” appears in Land of Many Shores. Her most recent novel, This Marlowe, was longlisted for the ReLit Award and the Dublin International Literary Award. Her first novel, Double-blind, was shortlisted for the Sunburst Award. Butler Hallett lives in St. John’s. Constant Nobody is her fifth novel.
- Publisher : Goose Lane Editions (March 2 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 440 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1773101579
- ISBN-13 : 978-1773101576
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Ian Colford’s short fiction has appeared in many literary publications, in print and online. His work has been shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Journey Prize, the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and others. His latest novel, The Confessions of Joseph Blanchard, was the winner of the 2022 Guernica Prize and was published by Guernica Editions in 2023. He lives in Halifax.