In Review

Sell Us the Rope by Stephen May

This novel has all the makings of an ‘exciting political thriller’

Joseph Stalin “never spoke or wrote” about the two months he spent in London in the spring of 1907, attending the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, said Alasdair Lees in The Daily Telegraph. Into this “psychological aperture” steps Stephan May, whose sixth novel is an “openly confected” retelling of those “few overlooked weeks”.

It begins with a 29-year-old Stalin – then known by his nickname, Koba – landing at Harwich, fresh from “a campaign of terror and banditry” in his native Georgia. In London, he stays in a dosshouse in Stepney, while better-off attendees – including Lenin – lodge in Bloomsbury. May’s Stalin is a “figure of fascinating contradictions” – an “idealist and a thug” – and the novel a “captivating thought experiment”.

Sadly, it often falls “disappointingly flat”, said Simon Baker in Literary Review. There are “samey descriptions” of London’s “awful” pubs, and May makes too much use of summary. Despite having the makings of an “exciting political thriller”, the novel isn’t convincing enough for May’s story to really grow.

Sandstone 288pp £8.99; The Week Bookshop £6.99

Sell Us The Rope
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