I loved The Rose Code by Kate Quinn – it was one of my favourite books last year. Because of that, I think my expectations for her new novel, The Diamond Eye, were slightly too high. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it will be one of my books of the year this time.
The Diamond Eye is the story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a female sniper in the Soviet Army during World War II (and a real historical figure). Lyudmila, or ‘Mila’ as she is called in the novel, was born in Ukraine but considered herself Russian. The book was written before the current war in Ukraine began earlier this year, which gives something as simple as Mila’s choice of identity new relevance.
When we first meet Mila, she is a twenty-one-year-old history student in Kiev (now known as Kyiv, of course) and is trying to get a divorce from her husband Alexei, who seduced her as a teenager then left her to raise their son, Slavka, alone. After an encounter with Alexei at a shooting range during which Mila embarrasses herself by missing a shot, she decides to join an advanced marksmanship course so that she’ll never miss again and can prove to Slavka that she’s the equal of his father. This decision changes Mila’s life because, when Hitler invades Russia a few years later, she is handed a rifle and enlisted into the Red Army as a sniper.
We then follow two alternating storylines – one which describes Mila’s time in the army and how she acquires her reputation as ‘Lady Death’, being credited with 309 kills, and another set in 1942 as Mila embarks on a US tour in an attempt to persuade the Allies to provide support for Russia against the Nazis. The chapters set in America explore Mila’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and a fictitious plot to assassinate the President. This invented storyline adds some tension and excitement to the book, but with Mila’s own life being so fascinating I’m not sure that it was really necessary!
The factual parts of the novel are based on Lyudmila Pavlichenko’s own memoir, Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper, which I haven’t read. In fact, I knew nothing at all about Mila before reading this book so everything in it was new to me. Quinn includes a very comprehensive author’s note at the end in which she explains where she tried to stick to the known facts and where she had used her imagination to fill in gaps or make the story more interesting (mainly the bits concerning Mila’s marriage to Alexei and her romantic relationships with two men she meets in the army). Some of the most surprising parts of the story, such as Mila’s friendship with the First Lady are actually true.
There’s a lot of focus on military life, weapons and tactics, which I suppose is to be expected in a novel about a sniper, but that’s never been a particular area of interest to me and reading about the Bletchley Park codebreakers in The Rose Code was much more to my taste. Still, it’s always good to learn something new and I did enjoy the parts of the book about Mila’s personal life and ambassadorial work, if not so much the parts about shooting and killing. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of Kate Quinn’s books.
Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 28/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.