Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Title: The Diamond Eye
Author: Kate Quinn
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld
Publication: HarperAudio, 2022
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Soviet Union and United States
Description: When Lyudmila (Mila) Pavlichenko is sent to the United States during WWII to join Eleanor Roosevelt’s international student conference, Stalin’s goal is to showcase a military sniper whose skill has earned her the nickname Lady Death, hoping she and the rest of Russian delegation can generate American support on the Eastern Front. Mila befriends the First Lady and becomes a sensation as she tours the country, astonishing many Americans, who did not realize a woman could serve in combat. Her path to the military was not typical: before the war, she was a serious history student in Ukraine, bringing up a son on her own, developing advanced shooting skills at the gun range with friends. This meant she got sent to the front after enlisting in 1937 instead of being assigned a more typically female job away from the fighting. Transforming herself from a librarian to a deadly assassin earned her the respect of most of her peers, although there were still those in her own Red Army who doubted her suitability or ability until she had officially tallied 309 kills. In 1942, she traveled to Washington DC, impatient with the need for a diplomatic mission when she wants to return to the front.  Despite her newfound popularity as a propaganda envoy, it turns out there is a special need for Mila’s skill and knowledge in FDR’s White House . . .

My Impression: Bestselling author Quinn delivers again with her most intricate and carefully researched book in this story of a brilliant woman sniper, based on a real but little known Russian war heroine. The conditions are so vividly described that the reader feels the danger and despair as Germany and its allies advance inexorably into Russian territory. But the narrative is also about Mila’s adjustment to combat and the quiet Siberian who becomes her shooting partner.
But I arrived on Bessarabian soil among the rear units of the 25th Chapayev Rifle Division in the middle of utter chaos. There was no time for proper training or measured appreciation of the different moving moments of my initiation; there was barely time to gulp a dish of buckwheat porridge to the sound of far-off machine-gun fire. Mud squelched underfoot, and trees looked down like silent sentinels on the dirty tents, the rattling trucks, the soldiers rushing back and forth like ants. I changed into the uniform that was flung at me, rattled my oat off, and signed my life and body away to the Red Army, absorbing the information that I’d become a soldier of the 54th Stepan Razin Rifle Regiment, 1st Battalion, 2nd Company.
Justice Jackson, Lyudmila, Eleanor Roosevelt (via Library of Congress)
Mila is a fascinating character, patriotic enough to enlist the day war was declared, although it meant separation from her son. She was modest yet focused, serious about the science of shooting and with an endearing tendency to tell anyone interested (and those who are not) about her graduate school thesis on 17th century Ukraine. However, the dashing lieutenant she falls in love with, Lyonya Kitsenko, almost steals the show from quiet Mila. He is a handsome, charismatic blond officer, not a suitable romance for someone still married to the unsatisfactory man who seduced her at 15, but irresistible. Kitsenko’s sense of humor is a welcome distraction from the intensity of battle. The Diamond Eye is an exciting and absorbing story, and is well-narrated. I especially enjoyed the portrayal of Mila’s experience in the United States. Although Quinn did not mention it, Mila even met my favorite Supreme Court Justice, Robert H. Jackson!

In an extensive Author’s Note, Quinn reveals which elements of the plot are supported by contemporary accounts (presumably including newspapers covering the Russian delegation’s travels and Pavlichenko’s official memoir) and which are her own creation. Quinn equips Mila with some limited English, which helps her connect with Eleanor Roosevelt but, in reality, she spoke no English when she reached DC so had to rely on interpreters during her trip.
Source: Library. This is my thirteenth book for Marg's 2024 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. This will certainly be a favorite book this month - despite often feeling I have overdosed on WWII, it felt completely different and the skillful audio added to my appreciation.  While Quinn's The Rose Code focused on Bletchley Place, which has long fascinated me, it takes even more skill to make a Russian sniper and actual battle so fascinating!  Brava to Ms. Quinn!  Her next book, The Briar Club, comes out in July but, disappointingly, her only local appearance is already sold out.  You might be able to catch her elsewhere.


Sam said...

This sounds excellent. I am vaguely aware of the woman, but haven't read anything at all about her other than a brief biographical sketch. I can't imagine what she must have been like after shooting that many men one at a time the way she did. It would seem that she would be scarred somehow by the experience. If not, I'd be afraid to be around her even after the war.

thecuecard said...

It's neat how Quinn finds such interesting real protagonists for her novels. I didn't know about her ... but I like the photo! Is there a lot of war in this one or more of her exploits off the battlefield? or half & half? Glad you enjoyed it. I liked parts of The Rose Code.

CLM said...

This was a very compelling book and a good blend of fact and fiction. Quinn even made the guns sound interesting. I think the audio format really worked for me because sometimes Russian names can be intimidating but the narrator had the challenging assignment instead of me!

Susan, a large portion of the book is set at the front but much involves relationships and strategy. It did not seem like too much battle description for me.

TracyK said...

I have been meaning to read something by Kate Quinn. This seems like a good one to try. Certainly a very interesting topic.