Stalin’s Door by John St. Clair is a thrilling, epic piece of historical fiction spanning nearly seven decades but centered on the trauma of Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s and 1940s. The novel took me by complete surprise and became a chilling, psychologically rich page-turner with all the hallmarks of a new classic.
The multiple-POV narration (book-ended by the wonderful and unforgettable Zhenya character – first as a young girl, and then as an old woman) is marvelously handled. Each story unravels like an episode of an epic mini-series. St. Clair’s attention to detail (not only in place and time but also in the nature of characters’ speech and mannerisms) is wholly immersive. From the Soviet-era opulence of The House on the Embankment, to the ominous oppression of the basement level holding cells and courtrooms beneath government buildings in Moscow, to the frigid brutality of a Siberian Gulag, the reader is given a first-person view of The Great Terror.
Each opening of that titular door is spine-tingling. The suspense is full-throttle and anchored in realistic characters caught up in extraordinarily terrifying times.
This is the type of book you have dreams about. I can hear those massive trees swaying in the brutal winds of the Siberian tiaga. I can hear the gasps of those arrested by the special police. I can hear the gunshots. And I can feel the humanity of the characters, both those who made it out alive and those who did not.
Stalin’s Door ranks up there with the best of WWII-era literature. It is a stunning achievement for a debut novel. I beg of you, walk through that door.