What a wonderful book is The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn. The fictionalised story of a real Soviet female sniper fighting in what is now Ukraine in the early years of the Second World War, this is a novel I didn’t want to put down. The life of Kiev resident Mila Pavlichenko, young mother and history student, changes when the Nazis invade. Already an accomplished shot with a rifle, she leaves her young son Slavka with her mother and goes off to war. In the 18 months of her time on the frontline as a sniper, the real Mila scored 309 official ‘kills’. She is injured fighting in Sevastapol and, once recovered, is ordered to join a diplomatic mission to the USA to persuade the Americans to join the European war. The action in America is probably the most fictionalised part of The Diamond Eye which is based in part on Mila’s memoir. Quinn states in her Author’s Note that parts of the memoir are clearly Mila’s own voice, other entries seem like Soviet propaganda.
This is not just a war story with guns and death and trenches. Quinn tells the story of a young woman, torn from all that is familiar, who finds strength inside herself and with her comrade snipers, to do what must be done. Some of her fellow soldiers have brief times at her side; others, the most skilled snipers, survive. She discovers how difficult it is, when you know you may die tomorrow, to open yourself up to friendship, or love. She acquires a nickname, ‘Lady Death,’ and spurns the frequent attentions of her senior officers. Her girlfriends also volunteer, her estranged husband turns up as a combat surgeon, but there are few light moments in her life. Her primary motivation is to defend her homeland, that is the only thing keeping her away from home. Between missions she gathers leaves and sends them to Slavka, she carries her dissertation with her and takes it from her backpack to read to remember the life she once had. Quinn alternates the dark story of Mila’s fighting, first at Odesa and then at Sevastapol, with her later trip to Washington in 1942 plus excerpts from the diary of the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who Mila met on that trip.
This is a shocking story and a compelling one. The sections about sniper technique and tactics are not for the faint-hearted but the current war in Ukraine adds a reality check and there are light-hearted moments in Washington as Mila meets the American press, not alerting her hosts to the fact that she can speak English. Also lightly woven through the fighting sections are snippets of Russian folklore, a reminder that Mila’s country has roots and traditions much older than the Soviet Union.
Quinn creates a heroine we care for. Brave and determined with a sharp edge of sarcasm, this is Mila’s story as imagined by the author. The two parts of the story – the fighting, the subsequent trip to America – are key to the growth of an unusual and exceptional young woman. So what if the final section lurches into ‘thriller’ territory, it made the pages turn even faster.
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And here’s my review of THE ROSE CODE, another WW2 thriller by Kate Quinn.
If you like this, try:-
‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ by Katherine Arden [#1 Winternight trilogy]
‘Midnight in Europe’ by Alan Furst
‘Corpus’ by Rory Clements [#1 Tom Wilde series]
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE DIAMOND EYE by @KateQuinnAuthor #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5QW via @SandraDanby