The Unreliable People
Rosetta Allan (Penguin, $38)
Reviewed by Dionne Christian

Three years ago, Rosetta Allan became the first New Zealand Writer-in-Residence at the St Petersburg Art Residency in Russia. As she explains in the acknowledgements section of this, her second novel, she went intending to write one book and returned with a very different one.

Being open to new ideas, and having the courage to follow them, is a good thing and Allan is to be commended for following her heart. She's got (good) form when it comes to this; her debut novel, Purgatory, was inspired by genealogical research when the word "murdered" popped up next to ancestors on her family tree.

Who wouldn't be intrigued by that and want to find out more? Very few of us, though, would have the wherewithal to write a novel that, as Purgatory did, spends weeks on the Nielsen Weekly Bestseller list or gets selected as an Apple iBook 'Top Ten Best Reads of 2014'.

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So, it's not surprising that Allan went with her gut when, in Russia, she was confronted with another intriguing story that, like many of the best ones, has long been hidden from popular history. In 1937, Josef Stalin, leader of the then Soviet Union, began a deliberate campaign to expel those of Korean origin living in Russia, particularly in the Far East, to hostile Central Asian steppe country nearly 6000km away. Those who resisted "disappeared"; those who were forcibly moved faced a battle for survival, with an estimated 40,000 dying of starvation during the first year on the steppes.

In Russia, Allan was confronted with another intriguing story that, like many of the best ones, has long been hidden from popular history. Photo / Supplied
In Russia, Allan was confronted with another intriguing story that, like many of the best ones, has long been hidden from popular history. Photo / Supplied

Stalin dubbed ethnic Koreans "the unreliable people" - they'd had a fraught relationship with a suspicious Russia since they began arriving in numbers in the 19th century – and he did his utmost to expunge them from Soviet history. Indeed, it was forbidden to speak of the deportations – the ethnic cleansing – until the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in a new era of openness and the Soviet Union began to break apart.

Now known as Koryo-saram, around half a million ethnic Koreans live in former Soviet states and it these people, and their story, that inspired Allan's The Unreliable People. Antonia is a struggling student at the Academy of Art in St Petersburg but is increasingly drawn toward the Centre of Nonconformist Art across town. She's not Russian, Korean or Kazakh - but all three play into her own identity as a young Koryo-saram woman so where does she fit in exactly? And with who?

Then there's a mystery from her childhood. As a small girl, Antonia was taken from her home by an unknown woman, who seemed to know her, and taken halfway across the country by train before being sent back again. Who was this elegant stranger – and does she have a part to play in Antonia's future?

The Unreliable People opens with this abduction, so you might think you're about to read a crime or thriller novel but, quickly, it veers off in a slower and more considered direction as Allen attempts to unpick what makes a person who they are. She explores a complex mix of history, art and culture, family, contemporary life and what a beautifully difficult melange this can be. So, the story becomes more of a coming-of-age tale but a multi-layered and sophisticated one where the contemporary intersects with the historical.

Reviewing Purgatory, NZ Herald reviewer John McCrystal described Allan's writing as "accomplished with a talent for capturing quirks of human behaviour, movement and appearance, along with an acute ear for dialogue, effort that isn't spared even for minor characters".

This still holds true in The Unreliable People, but it's a gradual realisation for Antonia, admittedly one packed full of striking metaphors and descriptions. That means, particularly in the middle of the book, it can be a drawn-out read, which builds to a conclusion that should possibly be more dramatic than what it is.