My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I first came across James Riordan with his excellent The Cello so I was interested to discover this title whilst browsing the shelves recently. It’s set in Stalingrad in 1942 and, I think, spectacularly misleading in how it’s presented. The cover to me is resolutely masculine with a figure that is too indistinct to accurately gender. The blurb on the back pages obviously (and awkwardly) avoids using gendered pronouns, referring to the true story of a ‘teenage sniper recruited in 1942 … the younger finds it almost as impossible to kill … the sniper … this sniper is no ordinary marksman’.
So to discover that this is actually the story of Tania Belova, young female sniper recruited into the Russian Army, came as a bit of a surprise. I appreciate coy promotional text, and I appreciate trying to hide ‘the twists’ but Tania’s story is massive, and to be so reticent about selling this book as what it is, struck me as worthy of comment.
Once you get into the book itself, Riordan is very competent but strangely cool. There are moments when he surpasses himself. The opening chapters for one, where we see a sniper at work, and then the others where we’re at school seeing the shift between this life and Tania’s-life-to-come. But in other moments, moments of great tragedy, there’s a curiously dispassionate tone to the text that devoid it of any emotional impact.
The Sniper covers an area of history that I’ve rarely read about in young adult literature, and it covers it from an angle that is fascinating. The problem is that all too often it slides into being too far removed from its story, and the story is what makes this book worth reading. I’d recommend it for those interested in this period of history. I’d be reluctant to recommend it for those who are not.