David Francis's choice to make the protagonist of his second novel (after The Great Inland Sea) a struggling young artist is very much a propos, for mood and color hang over the novel in a way that is disquieting but also essential. What should be a professional life-changing event for the artist in question, Darcy Bright – a surprise fellowship to paint industrial landscapes in perestroika-era Soviet Union – turns out to be a life-changing one, for that bequest came at the behest of his half-sister Fin and comes attached with a request to carry a money-filled leather belt back to her. Train journeys and travel around the country re-acquaint Darcy with his sister, with whom he has had a complicated and disjointed relationship rich with dark undertones, as well as with the memory of an old love that may have the chance to re-ignite into a current one. Bridging all these fraught interactions together is an espionage plot that doesn't always come off (though the ending is in keeping with the overall pallor of bleakness), astute commentary on Russian mores, and Francis's beautiful prose, words so carefully chosen they border on the poetic.
(Originally posted on November 23, 2008. This review was originally commissioned by the Baltimore Sun but was cut for space reasons.)