Book Review: Bequest by Anna Shevchenko

Bequest is the first novel by Ukrainian-born British writer Anna Shevchenko.

It is April 2001, and two people separated by thousands of miles are both exploring an 18th century legend claiming that Hetman Polubotko hid a vast fortune of Cossack gold (estimated to be worth 270 billion pounds) in a London bank.  There are two conditions to claiming the gold: it can only be claimed by one of his descendants, and Ukraine must be independent at the time of the claim.

London lawyer Kate, who has a Ukrainian background, is caught up in a vast international web of intrigue when she is asked to find this ancient deposit of gold.  The deposit was supposedly made by Hetman Polubotko’s daughter Sophia after a difficult journey across Europe from her native Ukraine.  With the assistance of Count Orly (Cossack Grygory Orlyk), she managed to deposit a vast amount of gold in 1742 in a London bank.

Kate travels to Ukraine, France and Argentina to trace this claim. She meets Ukrainian historians, the Metropolitan of Kyiv, and even the Ukrainian Prime Minister in her effort to return the lost gold to the Ukrainian people.

Meanwhile in Moscow, Taras Petrenko, a lonely and disgraced Ukrainian archivist in the employ of the Russian Secret Service, discovers clues to the ancient treasure in a 1749 file in the Soviet archives. He convinces his superiors to allow him to follow the trail of the Ukrainian gold in order to stop it from being claimed.  In the process, he manipulates, deceives and even commits murder to redeem himself in the eyes of his Russian masters.

After Kate and Taras meet quite coincidentally, their quests collide.  Who will survive?  Does the Hetman’s gold really exist?

Anna Shevchenko has written a wonderful political thriller about the Ukrainian legend of the Hetman’s gold.  It is a fast-paced read with lots of twists and turns.  It gives readers unique insights into Ukrainian history while providing a chilling picture of Soviet life. The appalling treatment of student Oksana Polubotko, who was drugged and put into a mental institution by the KGB in 1962, was only one of the instances of Soviet cruelty described in this novel.

Shevchenko’s storytelling technique is masterful.  She uses flashbacks, diaries, archival documents, and cliffhanger chapter endings to tell her story.  A central focus of the novel is the examination of ancient archival documents.  At first, this would seem a very boring premise; however, Shevchenko manages to make it both interesting and exciting.

The novel goes back and forth between the story of Kate and Taras as they both search for the gold.  This technique can cause readers to become confused.  They may have to re-read passages in the text in order to clarify their perceptions. However, it is well worth the trouble. Shevchenko’s plot also relies on coincidence a bit too heavily.  How likely is it that Kate and Taras meet by chance both at the Pecherskaya Lavra Monastery as well as at the Kiev airport? Despite these minor concerns, Bequest is a thrilling and engaging novel which will be very difficult to put down!

Shevchenko was born in Ukraine, but currently lives in Britain.  She has a background as a linguist, and takes the opportunity to use many Ukrainian words in her novel, as well as giving readers a time capsule of Ukrainian history. The idea for the novel began when her grandmother Rosa gave Anna her grandfather’s diary.  Fedir Shevchenko was a dissident and a professional historian in Ukraine during the 1970’s. The novel is dedicated to her grandparents.

Shevchenko has written several guides to Ukraine in 2005. Bequest was Anna’s first novel published in 2010.  In May 2013 she published a new novel, The Game, based on the Yalta conference of 1945.

– Reviewed by Myra Junyk

Shevchenko, A.K.
Bequest
Headline Publishing Group, 2010. 410 p. ISBN 978-0-7553-5637-9
Available on Amazon

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