Heads You Win, by Jeffrey Archer

Nine stars

Lord Jeffrey Archer remains one of the eminent writers of my time, able to craft brilliant novels that can be enjoyed years after the ink dries on their publication. Archer develops his books with pages of captivating text and believable dialogue. On the docks of Leningrad in 1968, Alexander Karpenko lives under the iron fist of the Soviet regime. No choice or decision goes unwatched by the KGB and punishment is usually brutal. When Alexander’s father is involved in a workplace ‘accident’, young Alexander and his mother, Elena, know that it is time to make a break for it. At the docks, they must rush to choose a means of getting out of Russia, with two shipping crates before them; one bound for England, the other for America. They make a hasty choice and hide away, before the crate can be loaded for departure to another land. It is here that Archer takes the story and turns it on its head. Following two threads, the narrative takes the reader along with Alex and Elena to America or with Sasha and Elena to England. Alex experiences many stumbling blocks when he makes it to the shores of New York, trying to find a place for both he and Elena to situate themselves and rise from the ashes of Soviet oppression. While he scrabbles to get enough money to feed them, Alex discovers that his hard work can pay off, beginning by selling produce at a local stand and amassing wealth through grit and determination. On the other hand, Sasha and Elena land in England and use his sharp wit to earn a place in a prestigious school before attending Cambridge, where the political bug bites him and he is able to explore a work of power and intrigue. Both men discover love, family, and a rise to the top, but neither can help but wonder what might have happened if they’d chosen ‘the other crate’. Lord Archer is here to tell the reader exactly what might have happened, offering sensational parallels in the lives of these two, as well as contrasting their great differences. An ingenious approach to storytelling that Archer perfected, with a sensational twist at the end. Highly recommended to those who love Archer’s work, as well as the reader who enjoys historical fiction with a few twists along the way!

Those familiar with Jeffrey Archer’s work will know that his work is both highly entertaining and filled with layers of rich narrative. The stories are neither superficial, nor are they weighed down with minutiae. However, there is something intensely captivating about them that makes them as unique as anything I have ever read. The Alex/Sasha character is one that fans of the author will have seen many times before, but is more of an amalgamation of many, rather than a copy of one in particular. Rising from the depths of poverty and communist oppression, Alex/Sasha finds himself grasping onto the chance of a new life and makes the most of it. What makes this character even more interesting, is the contrast that comes from his alter ego—for lack of a better word—and how the contrasting decisions lead both men in completely different directions, though their paths seem destined to lead to the same ultimate goal. The story is full of character development and weaves a powerful backstory for both Alex/Sasha, though the reader must pay close attention to notice the parallels and divergences throughout the narratives. There are obviously a number of supporting characters throughout the piece, most especially Elena Karpenko, who is able to see her son rise to greatness as she does so herself. Elena bides her time but does not sit idly by, as she creates an empire all her own and proves to be almost a second protagonist in the larger story. The others offer the needed narrative mortar to keep the story moving and standing strong, though Archer has rarely had trouble making someone who graced the pages of his books appear full of life and active in pushing the story towards its needed conclusion. The concept for this piece is brilliant, pulling on many of Archer’s past successful novels. Be it Kane and Abel, The Clifton Chronicles, or many of the other pieces he has penned over the decades, Archer’s flavourful storytelling comes alive yet again, in what may be his best single novel work in years. Telling a political, social, and emotional story of one boy’s ultimate choice to flee oppression, Archer offers two distinct paths that could have been taken. The greatest trouble for the reader as they progress through this epic piece is to decide which one is the better life. I am not sure I could choose quite yet, but that might be the ultimate Archer gift, as it keeps the story lingering well after it’s been completed.

Kudos, Lord Archer, for a spellbinding novel. I could not expect anything less from such a master storyteller!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons