Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem is a young adult paranormal spy mystery featuring a prima ballerina who goes missing and the daughter desperately searching for her (available August 13, 2013).
Journalist Elizabeth Kiem’s first novel Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, gave me a taste of what it would feel like to live in 1980s Soviet Moscow, and even though the protagonist, Marina, emigrates to the United States shortly after the novel begins, in many ways she is still trapped by the Soviet pressures of secrets and conflicting loyalties and unspoken threats. As well as all that, Marina is a high schooler, attempting to deal with her mother Svetlana’s disappearance into a government hospital, her own unexpected and abrupt change in language, home, and social status, a potential romance, and her father’s deteriorating mental state. I was completely gripped by Marina’s emotional struggles even before the complex elements of spies, informants, and organized crime entered the story.
Marina is the daughter of a famous ballet dancer and a biochemist, and is herself training to be an elite dancer. However, her mother possesses a clairvoyant ability that, combined with connections through her father’s work, means her parents inadvertently learn of dangerous government secrets that get them into deep trouble. Marina and her father must rely on a friend of her father’s, who works around and against the law, to escape to safety in the United States. However, they are not truly safe even there, and Marina is forced to try and navigate in a world where she might not be able to trust anyone fully.
Kiem’s strength, in my opinion, is her historical detail, which feels true and immediate, showing myriad layers of both Soviet and American society during this time period, and allowing for complex characterization, with conflict for the characters coming from several different angles.
Brighton Beach, also known as “Little Odessa” or “Russia by the Sea.” About half a mile west of us America begins, speaking English, Spanish, and Black. But here in Brighton Beach you mostly hear Russian. We live in a Soviet-exile ghetto. Every day, Pop climbs up and down stairs along Brighton Beach Avenue, inquiring, registering, applying. Twice he has placed phone calls to Moscow, to numbers that Gennadi supplied before we left. But they have gone unanswered. Once he took a risk and called the hospital where Svetlana was taken. Somehow he managed to persuade the operator that he was calling from East Germany “on business.” She told him that my mother had been transferred but that he would have to inquire further with the Ministry of Health on his return to Moscow. I was merciless that night. I called my father a traitor and a backstabber and a helpless jackass. He went out and drank too much. But here’s the thing: I’ve never climbed the stairs along Brighton Beach Avenue, let alone board the Q train to see what it was my mother had hoped to bring us to. I haven’t inquired or registered or made phone calls, though my English is better than Pop’s. In America, school is out for Christmas vacation and won’t start again until after the New Year. But I’m not looking forward to that, either—making friends, testing my English, explaining myself. So what do I do? Nothing. I wrap myself up in my music. If I leave the apartment it’s only to brood on the boardwalk or walk the main drag with the babushki inspecting the parsley, the hairstylists in leopard prints singing Alla Pugacheva, the street toughs smoking Soviet papirosi without the filters. If I liked vodka more I would drink too much, too.
While not a conventional thriller – the story is much more inwardly focused, a slow build rather than a rollercoaster ride – Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy is nonetheless thrilling to read. Marina’s dilemmas, though rooted in the Cold War, reflect on governmental cover-ups and informational secrecy issues still relevant to today’s world. It led me to wonder what the fictional Marina would think of life in the United States today, and to hope for a sequel.
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