The Red Wake by Kurt Johnson

Review by Jackie Smith

Rating: Unrated

Genre: Travel Literature, History

Publisher: Penguin Books Australia

RRP: $34.99 (Trade Paperback)


Australian journalist Kurt Johnson attempts to uncover the legacy of the Iron Curtain and Soviet Communism in his “hybrid of travel, history and journalism”, “The Red Wake”.

Haunted by his grandparents’ tales of Eastern European nations trapped by the overzealous reach of Communism, Johnson sets out on a journey to not only explore his family’s legacy but that of the ideology itself.

When Penguin Australia sent me this book out of the blue last year, I was intrigued and couldn’t wait to read about the haunting effects of a regime that was so secretive and so mysterious, and yet so powerful and controlling over people caught up in its wake. What I had learnt at school was interesting and intriguing, but altogether a little brief in its explanation.

“The Red Wake” opens in Russia, where Johnson seeks out the crumbling Perm-36, a concentration camp for those who refused to conform to Stalin’s strict way of thinking. Though these are camps we don’t hear about as much as their Nazi counterparts, it would seem their purpose was just as severe. As he walks around the dilapidated buildings surrounded by the air of mystery he’s seeking to uncover, Johnson reflects on what life must have been like for his ancestors. It’s a captivating introduction, to be sure, but for me, what follows doesn’t live up to expectations.

Granted, it is important in a genre such as this to share actual historical facts whilst mixing them with the anecdotes of those who were actually present, and it’s what I was hoping for. But as an author, you run the risk of oversharing … which is where “The Red Wake” falls down, in my opinion. Often Johnson will share an anecdote of a source, only to then switch back to his personal experience within the city he is visiting, be it Moscow in Russia or Nagoro-Karabakn in Azerbaijan, sprinkling it with a heavy dose of historical fact and his (at times) long-winded interpretation.

The result is a frenetic, hodge-podge of storytelling that is difficult to follow as Johnson jumps from one country to the next. And while the anecdotes of history’s witnesses are interesting, they don’t really seem to shine as much as they could have, and the spotlight soon returns to the author’s own reading of the subject. There’s just not enough to keep you turning the pages, and the lack of flow makes it difficult to want to.

I gave this book a fair shot, having attempted to read it several times now, and struggled this last time until just over half-way, at which point I had to admit that I’d met my match. It’s rare that I don’t finish a book – and even more so if I am intending to write a review – but such was the case here.

“The Red Wake” surely has a demographic out there who will find themselves enraptured in its pages and the facts and figures it presents. Unfortunately, I’m simply not one of those readers.  However, if you think this may be your cup of tea, by all means, check it out in all good bookstores and online. Honestly, I’d be interested to hear a contradictory opinion.



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