#BlogTour #BookReview #GuestPost - Two Cousins of Asov by Andrea Bennett

A heart-warming novel about the surprise of second chances in the autumn of your life. Two Cousins of Azov explores themes of dementia, memory, loneliness and lost connections, set against the backdrop of 1990s Russia.

Gor is keeping busy. He has a magic show to rehearse, his new assistant to get in line and a dacha in dire need of weeding. But he keeps being distracted by a tapping on his window – four floors up. Is old age finally catching up with him?           

Tolya has woken from a long illness to find his memory gone. Tidied away in a sanatorium, with only the view of a pine tree for entertainment, he is delighted when young doctor Vlad decides to make a project of him. With a keen listener by his side, and the aid of smuggled home-made sugary delights, Tolya’s boyhood memories return, revealing dark secrets…             

Two Cousins of Azov is a tender and wonderful story of two men who, in the autumn of their years, have the chance to learn that memories can heal, as well as haunt.

I'm thrilled to be the host for the Two Cousins of Asov blog tour today. You can read my review below but first I'm delighted to feature a post from the author, Andrea Bennett about her inspiration behind the characters in the book. 

I’m often asked where I get the inspiration for my characters. The answer is – real life. I steal things from all around me; day-to-day conversations, odd bits of memories and situations, other people’s anecdotes overheard on the train, friends’ recollections. I’m a magpie like that, and I think most writers are – we collect up shiny pieces of life and make something new from them. But you can’t just glue the bits together. To get to grips with a new character, I first have to develop a clear picture of them in my head. The appearance of curmudgeonly Gor, hero of Two Cousins of Azov, is based on a lovely chap I used to know in Moscow. He was very tall and painfully thin and had the darkest, most sunken eyes and sharpest cheekbones I had ever seen. He really looked like a corpse when his face was at rest, but when he smiled — well, it was like sunshine pouring into the room. And he smiled often, as he was nothing like Gor as far as temperament is concerned. 

My physical model for beautiful Polly was also a real person. For a while, long ago, I lived in a shared flat in a far-flung Moscow suburb. Shortly after moving in, I realised the couple I was sharing with were alcoholics, and one of them was violent. She had the most gorgeous face, with a mesmerising gaze shining from huge, troubled eyes, a freckled nose and full, curving lips. There was strength in that face, nothing remotely ‘girly’. And she scared the life out of me, with the consequence that I used to time my visits to the kitchen and bathroom to avoid her as far as I could. My three months in that flat were deeply disturbing, but that’s another story. 

There was also a model for four-cornered Albina, the girl who is almost a teenager, and almost a child. This time it was someone I never met, but only heard about. I had a friend who lodged with a teacher in Russia while he was on a language exchange, and he used to regale us with weekly reports of what fresh hell her dear daughter, who he referred to as ’the devil child’, had brought on him. It stuck in my head, as did the size of her pigtails and feet.

Once I can see my characters, I can interrogate them. I do this by writing rambling preparatory pieces in the first person so that they can each find their voice. Of course, some of them don’t want to talk, some are embarrassed, some can’t be bothered and some obviously can’t wait to tell you their whole life story – like Tolya in Two Cousins, when he’s lying lost and forgotten in the sanatorium waiting to tell all the things he can remember. This is when my characters also tend to develop those other bits and bobs that bring them in to 3D; their habits, patterns of speech, likes and dislikes, old scores and pet hates, motivations and secrets. 

Oh yes, and the Vim and Vigour Sanatorium where poor Tolya is holed up? That was inspired by real life too. As a language student in Donetsk, way back in 1992, I actually lived in the Vim and Vigour sanatorium – but luckily for me, it was a lot less grim – at least on the inside – than in my imagined world. 

Many thanks for sharing this with us Andrea, the inspiration behind Polly sounds terrifying!

Two Cousins of Asov is one of those books that are really hard to categorise. In one sense it's a family drama, the two cousins of the title, Gor and Tolya have become estranged, both older men with dark memories and secrets. It's also a mystery story, Gor is being terrorised, but why? And by who? As Gor attempts to train Sveta, his new magician's assistant he faces more and more torment, could the spirit world be behind the strange things that keep occurring, or is there a more down to earth culprit? Gor is an older man, could it all just be in his mind?
Meanwhile Tolya is in a sanatorium, with little memory of how he ended up there. He can however, remember his past, particularly Moth Boy, the strange visitor he recalls came to the childhood home he shared with his Baba. What is the truth behind Tolya's memories, and what really happened the night of a terrible fire when both men were still just boys?
At its heart, Two Cousins of Asov is a beautiful, sharp yet poignant character study. Gor is a wonderful lead character, at first a rather curmudgeonly old man, as the book progresses we see a man torn apart by guilt, desperate to make amends but not sure if he can face up to his past. Despite early impressions Gor is actually a very kind man, for all his bluster and solitary ways he's a man who needs love. Tolya is the gentler, more obviously vulnerable figure, it's not difficult to see how Tolya could be taken advantage of. Even when we see the boy Tolya, as he remembers his past, we are aware that he is a bit different, his rich imagination both a gift and a curse. The other characters in the books are no less complex or sensitively brought to life. First impressions of Sveta aren't entirely favourable but she is revealed to be a strong, brave and committed single mother who is prepared to run into to, rather than away from, danger. Albina, her daughter is a fabulous character, completely spolit and sharp minded, her innate kindness and wit means she becomes somebody you can't help warming to despite her precociousness. Polly, on the other hand is far harder to like, she is however, a deliciously dark and manipulative woman, the relationship she has with Vlad passionate yet ultimately toxic. The secondary characters all add a real colour and vibrancy to the proceedings, much of the humour in the book - and there is plenty, including some genuinely laugh out loud moments - comes from their interactions. 
Set in Russia in the 1990s Andrea Bennett's knowledge of the country, the sights, smells and particularly tastes are vividly brought to life (I need to try pryaniki now!) There are numerous reminders of the country's recent Soviet past, however, there is also something folkloric about the book; despite the starkness of the Communist era, Russia is of course a country with a rich tradition of myths and stories. Two Cousins of Asov recalls this past as well as the more utilitarian history of the country and in doing so Andrea Bennett has woven a tale that is quirky, poignant, witty and wise. I thoroughly recommend it.  
Many thanks to the publishers for my copy, received in return for my honest review. Don't miss the rest of the blog tour, dates are on the poster below.

Two Cousins is published in the UK by The Borough Press, an imprint of Harper Collins. You can follow Andrea Bennett on Twitter as @andreawiderworld.

About the Author
Andrea Bennett graduated from the University of Sheffield in History & Russian and then spent a good part of the “Yeltsin years” living and working in Russia. On her return to the UK she joined the Civil Service – first at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, then the Department for International Development. A stint in local government followed, and she now works in the charity sector. She lives in Ramsgate, Kent, with her family and dog. Her first novel is Galina Petrovna's Three-Legged Dog Story.