Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
The Last Night of the World is an ambitious effort. Author Joyce Wayne’s second novel straddles a long period of time, from 1921 to 1988, but focuses on the period from August 30 to September 4, 1945, just before and after the real-life defection of Igor Gouzenko, the cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, who revealed the full extent of Soviet spying into the US and Canadian efforts to develop the atomic bomb.
The story is told in long flashbacks by the main character, Freda Linton, intermingled with passages on her current life in the Chernobyl forest in 1988, where she and other survivors of the 1986 Chernobyl atomic reactor disaster scratch out a living. Freda is originally from Nesvicz, a small Jewish town on the Soviet-Polish border. She left the town in 1921 at the age of 14 during a Red Army purge, along with her slightly older neighbour Harry Vine. They were helped by a Red Army colonel, Nikolai Zabotin. Together Harry and Freda fled to Canada. In Canada, both joined the Canadian Communist Party in Toronto, and through the Party, they became operatives for Soviet Intelligence. From the age of 18, Freda’s job has been to seduce Canadian politicians and other men of influence under the cover of being a TASS reporter. Since 1939 she has been based in Ottawa. There her handler and lover is the same Nikolai Zabotin, now a Soviet GRU colonel.
In late August 1945, things are tense in Ottawa for these Soviet agents. On August 6 and 9 respectively, the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Stalin now desperately wants an atomic bomb for the USSR, and so Zabotin is orchestrating the forwarding to Moscow of copied plans from his agent in Los Alamos, Klaus Fuchs.
In the midst of all this intrigue, Freda is also trying to reconcile competing emotions in her life. She is torn between Vine and Zabotin. To Harry, she owes her life, perhaps, but he is a fervent communist—and he is not her lover. Nikolai is. Her other amorous conquests are just her job. Nikolai is also her boss and more importantly, has his own agenda—and doubts about the USSR regime. So can she really trust him? In addition, where do her own loyalties lie? To Vine or Zabotin, to the ideals of communism or to the USSR despite its flaws? This she struggles with. She also deeply misses her family in the USSR, from whom she has heard nothing since 1939 when the Nazis overran Poland. She wants to go back to find out if they are still alive.
Wayne is using the backdrop of the Gouzenko defection to weave a story of love and loyalty on several levels: family, lover, ideology, and country. Most of the events actually took place and most of the characters were real people, including Freda and Zabotin. Vine is fictional, but as the courier of the stolen plans, is based on the real-life Harry Gold.
In many places, Wayne succeeds. The characters of Freda and Zabotin are vivid and the action moves nicely from Europe to Canada. But at some point, the feeling of suspense gets lost. Her writing becomes distant, less intense. She repeats details of the acquisition of the atomic bomb plans in multiple conversations as if to re-emphasize their importance, but this gets monotonous. She often merely states what a character feels and moves on instead of taking the time to create deeper emotional intensity through dialogue and action. And many of the characters seem to know much too much about each other’s spying activities.
The time span is also problematical. Wayne plainly wants to use the purges in 1921 and the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986 as bookends for her story. But to do this she breezes over long periods in the beginning and end of the book—Freda’s early years in Canada and her time in the USSR prior to the Chernobyl disaster. But a lot happened in those years that could have affected the characters acutely. Wayne treats all that time as simply years gone by. Beyond that, was it really necessary to reach so far? There was certainly enough genuine drama in 1945 to fill a novel without searching for more.
One consequence of this long reach affects the character of Zabotin. Wayne has him in a senior job at the Chernobyl nuclear facility when it explodes in 1986. But he was a colonel in the Red Army in 1921, 64 years earlier. This is not a rank one gets as a teenager. So in 1986, he is in his mid-80s at the youngest. And this after surviving the gulag! Very improbable.
Another problem is her use of real people and actual events. It is legitimate, of course, to use real people in fiction. But it can be tricky, especially here, when Wayne begins to diverge from what actually happened after the defection. In this vein, creating Harry Vine makes no real sense. Harry Gold was too central. The same with Freda. Freda was a real person, but she was born in Canada to Polish immigrants and neither came from nor ever fled to the USSR. After Gouzenko’s defection, she spent a short time in the US, then returned to Canada, living out her life in Toronto. So why use her name? Zabotin was real and was a good choice, as he disappeared in 1946, and thus is a prime candidate for speculation. Freda really isn’t.
Finally, Wayne has Freda meet up with, of all people, the infamous British double agent Kim Philby. Though the character is drawn well, the interaction doesn’t work. Philby is made to know far too much about Freda and her spy ring. He just seems to have been plunked gratuitously into the narrative because of his notoriety. It just doesn’t hold up. There are also a couple of small factual errors that really should have been picked up.
Nevertheless, there is a lot to glean from The Last Night of the World on the many facets of love, loyalty, and forgiveness. In that sense, this novel gives the reader a lot to think about.
The Last Night of the World is published by Mosaic Press.