The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn
This is a historical novel based on a real character, which is not only an account of the extraordinary life of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, but also a genuinely tense thriller. Kate Quinn is the successful author of “The Rose Code” which looked at women at Bletchley Park which also used some real characters including Prince Philip, and includes a large element of historical suspense. This book is also set during the Second World War, largely as the Red Army tried to prevent the Invasion of the USSR by Hitler’s forces, as Mila fights as a successful sniper. Another element is the visit by a group of students, which includes Mila, to the US in order to ask for American support in defending Eastern Europe. While this was a real event, the novel imports the idea of a fictional marksman who has a mysterious assignment to kill, and to attribute the blame to an innocent party.
This is a stylish and powerful novel which depicts brilliantly the harsh realities of military action, where the targets are of necessity seen close up and the penalties for failure can be fatal. It has a brutal atmosphere in which a woman lives among male soldiers. Mila emerges as a driven woman, an able and dedicated student, a loving mother and a ferocious and controlled sniper. Her relationships with her estranged husband and those men who become of vital importance to her are beautifully described throughout the novel. Her mantra becomes “Don’t Miss”, and this becomes the theme not only for her main purpose as a deadly sniper, but also her life. A relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt seems ill fated, but may well take both women into unsuspected places. There is so much research behind this novel, but it is never allowed to interrupt or slow the narrative. It becomes the story of a realistic and driven woman, a vivid and vital character, and she is central to this multi-layered story. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this amazing book.
The Prologue to this book is set in Washington August 1942, as a Russian delegation arrives in the United States. A mysterious marksman echoes the widespread scepticism that surrounds the idea of a female sniper, a seemingly young woman who is alleged to have a tally of over three hundred kills on the Russian Front. The action then reverts to 1937, and an incident in the life of Mila as she encounters her estranged husband Alexi. Enraged by his latest non attendance at an appointment to finalise their divorce, Mila fails to impress at target shooting in front of him and crucially their small son Slavka. As a result she decides to train for an advanced marksmanship award, in order to show Slavka that she can be a strong parent. As the focus of the story moves on to June 1941 and the notification of an invasion, Mila decides that she will not continue her studies into obscure historical figures but will instead enlist as a sniper. As the only army which put women on the front line in this way, Mila was a figure of curiosity not only in her native country but in many countries. The hardship of life and the conditions for all soldiers but especially a young woman forms the background for Mila’s intense work as a sniper, preparing sight lines, finding a hiding place, calculating the weather and the dozens of other preparations that she and her partner must make. She is put in charge of training recruits, but it is the making of relationships in the face of daily danger that defines this part of the book. There is a build up of tension so many times, as well as the overall build up to the American threat.
This is an excellent book in so many ways; there is romance, a portrait of a strong woman, the harsh realities of war as well as the long term build up to a suspense filled climax. I recommend this story to anyone who enjoys a strong narrative with a female protagonist who describes her life, loves and loss in a compelling way.