Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem
Soho Teen, 2013; 288 pp
Reviewed by Megan Turner
“The train is crossing the river into Brooklyn. I gaze out on the constellation of my new city at night as it spills out on either side of the river. A solitary tugboat, like the first summer firefly, blinks its way on the dark winter water. We slide into the first station above ground. The doors open to take bundled-up Brooklyn home, and the frigid air come in, too. As we push further into the borough, the temperature drops and the buildings, just like molecules reaching to cold, move farther apart. Before long I can smell the half-frozen salt ocean."
With so many teen novels set in the dystopian future, it is nice to find one YA novel decisively set in the past. This past is the Soviet Union of 1982. Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy describes a world not unlike that of most contemporary dystopian novels. The Soviet in Elizabeth Kiem’s book is one of political and social unrest. This unrest follows the protagonist, Marina, an accomplished ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, to the United States as she and her father reestablish themselves there. The world Marina and her father live in is strikingly harsh. Just as one discovers some fact that must be false, one realizes it is, in fact, true.
This is an atmospheric novel. At her best, Kiem masterfully creates a feeling of mistrust. The descriptions of both the Soviet Union and Brighton Beach are exact. Writes Kiem: “In the medians of Ocean Parkway, the old people have come out to warm up. They sit on the benches facing the sun, soaking something like life into their old bones.”
Marina is a strong character and her relationship with the now assimilated Benjamin Frame is a compelling one. The novel fails only when it enters the realm of mystery/spy novel. In a way, just like Marina, the novel works best at a purely artistic level. When it turns out Marina’s father, Viktor, has involved himself with the Russian mafia and is seemingly hiding secrets in exchange for Marina’s mother, Svetlana’s release, the novel becomes confusing. Although highly energized and suspenseful, the payoff, in the end, is not enough. It turns out that Viktor’s CD of secrets is actually just a highly encrypted song for his daughter. This is disappointing, and yet on some levels the novel still works, even here.
Kiem has recreated the Cold War, including the absurdity that went along with it. While there are certain facts and details missing from the overall plot, the reader comes away with a clear feeling that Kiem has allowed him/her to encompass a part of this world. As the novel ends, there is a thirst for more. Luckily, Kiem’s upcoming sequel, Hider, Seeker, Secret Keeper, may satisfy that thirst. One hopes only that this second novel effectively capitalizes on the first.