Book Review

The House of the Dead by Daniel Beer

a non-fiction book that suffers from russian round

Photo on 15-02-2017 at 10.15 #5.jpg
not hipster history, but history: here in the wrong hands

The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars is a big fat history book published in 2016 by Allen Lane, a Penguin imprint and the guys who also last year brought out Norman Ohler’s Blitzed. That book is hipster military history/history verging on alternative history. That book is funny, entertaining, possibly incorrect and full of presumption on the back of – to be fair – heavy research. The House of the Dead isn’t written by a trendy Berliner novelist, though, it is instead the work of Daniel Beer, a British academic who is the Senior History Lecturer at a London university. And there isn’t much – no matter what the coked-up Hackneyites tell you – cool about London any more, and there’s never been much cool about academics. This is not a cool book, even though it’s about a COLD place (boom boom), and I like cool books, yeah… This is the end of my non-fiction marathon.


Just before I left my hometown after a visit in late December, my granddad pressed this book onto me. Since he’s retired, he’s started reading a lot, as well as maintaining (now into his approaching mid-70s) a life that is considerably more active than mine. He cycles hundreds of miles a week (I maybe accumulate 30 across my commute), goes hiking in proper mountains two or three times a year, and still goes skiing about that many times too. The last time he gave me a secondhand book, it was the biography of a contemporary cyclist I hadn’t heard of (and not the drug-sex-cancer one, whose name I’ve forgotten and can’t be arsed to look up, Lance something). That was a few years ago, and I’ve never gotten round to it. I suppose I will, eventually, if I clear the pile of 100ish books above it on my pile (which would be a dream scenario, tbh, being able to stalk through the pile without interruption), but The House of the Dead is more up my street.

My mother’s father has been reading lots more history over the last year or so, led in through an effective back door by his huge love for the Hilary Mantel Cromwell novels. This book is not a novel, it is a straightforward and traditionally structured book of history, and more the kind of thing one would expect a 7? year old man to be reading (SHIT – JUST REALISED IT WAS HIS BIRTHDAY LAST WEEK AND I DIDN’T SEND HIM A CARD OR ANYTHING – TO AMAZON! Done.)

The House of The Dead is about Tsarist Russia’s favourite punishment: exile to the wintry wonderland of Siberia, the far northeast of the giant Eurasian land mass. From violent criminals to people unpopular in their home village, then secondarily from the leaders of military coups down to people who helped hand out flyers that were mildly critical of the government, the autocratic regime sent away everyone they thought didn’t “belong” in their regimented, uncomplicated, European Russia. Murders and rapists would mix with the politically critical, generals and aristocrats would work in mines (at least in theory) alongside pickpockets and arsonists. Penal labour and forced settlement were used in combination as an attempt to both punish individuals but also to colonise a massive area of land. Understandably, these two motivations eventually began to cancel each other out, and Siberia ended up becoming a continent-sized melting pot of sedition, revolution and violent crime. Beer’s theory is that the Tsars’ use of exile created the ideal circumstances to cause their downfall, however Beer makes this conclusion very clear less than a quarter of the way into the massive book, meaning that there is no real driving force to a reader and the text ends up fragmenting into factual interlinked stories that bring to mind the structure of something like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio – each chapter deals with different people, a different period and different circumstances: all that remains is Siberia, all that is consistent is the place.

This is a book full of hundreds of different stories, and thousands of different people. Daring escapes, horrible crimes, glorious revolutions, fights, battles, chases, secret tunnels and codes and identities and excitement; spirituality and religion, torture and lust,  hunger and luxury, fastidiousness and deceit… Suicide, creativity, international travel and conspiracy, explorations, science, learning, politics and everything else that makes humanity what it is. This is a book filled with dense and exciting narratives told in a matter of sentences, and as such it allows for pleasing flights of imagination within the reader, but never lingers on any individual long enough to truly grasp. The book suffers from both a surfeit and a lack of detail: there are so many stories here, so many lives, so many deaths, so many punishments, all quickly told, but none of them are told in the detail one expects from contemporary history books. This is history as a list of things that happened, researched facts displayed as such. It is informative, yes, but every chapter deals with different particulars. We learn about the Decembrists, the fighters for Polish independence, the people who assassinated Alexander II, the Communists, as well as people punished for non-political reasons. We become desensitised to corporal punishment by the end of the book – most people received it, and when you’ve read a couple of descriptions of the effect of “the knout” you think of it less in relation to your own body (#empathy) and more in relation to the other people you’ve read about suffering its torturous effects (#apathy).

This book contains glorious stories, summarised, in a few sentences. Love and hate and revenge and danger, but they’re all swept through, as Beer takes on too much history to delve deeply into anything in a satisfying way. Yes, it’s full of facts and anecdotes and people experiencing HUGE things, but what I crave, what I need, is some humanity, some emotion, some psychological suffering.

For the last six weeks, I’ve read nothing but non-fiction. But that ends now, that ends here, at least for a bit. The House of the Dead is interesting and informative, but it doesn’t feel like modern non-fiction, it feels like it contains the scraps of about a thousand modern non-fiction books. And that’s great, I’m not knocking Beer’s research or his prose and I’m sure he’s a great, enthusiastic, lecturer, but for me this was a book that lacked a human heart. It is old school non-fiction, non-fiction for people who want to learn about something, rather than experience something. Good stuff, perfectly good stuff, but not for me.


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