John Bills Book Club 16: The Seven Who Were Hanged

Posted on April 9, 2012

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The Seven Who Were Hanged (Leonid Nikolayevich Andreyev)

Okay, pretty morbid book to start with, but if there is one thing the Russians know, it is death. Or at least making death sound absolutely poetic. Andreyev does this as well as anybody else as far as I’ve read, and throughout this book he creates a picture and vision of death that ironically leaves it feeling extremely alive. It is the story of 5 would be terrorists who are caught in the process of attempting an assassination of a government official, as well as a petty criminal and a frequent murderer, who are sentenced to death by hanging. The book paints pictures of the last days and thoughts of the 7. It captures their regrets, their desires, their loves and their hates, every single thing that these wildly contrasting 7 people go through before their inevitable end. That’s another great thing about this book, in that you know exactly how it is going to end but it is still gripping throughout.

In many ways, reading this book reminded me of working in prison. It is easy to assume that all prisoners are bad apples, that they are where they deserve to be and good riddance. As I seem to say on a frequent basis, nothing is quite as black and white as it seems. I refuse to believe that an individual is born bad and that criminal action is then inevitable, and that is something that Andreyev goes to great lengths to describe throughout. In prison, I spoke to a lot of people who had difficult upbringings (this does not provide an excuse for actions, but provides an insights into the back story), people who had suffered abuses and just ended up being caught up in something bad. Many of the characters in this book are similar, the character Yanson in particular, who is just a peasant worker who is driven to murder by his overbearing master. When thinking of crime, we seem to instantly think of the big crimes, the master plans etcetera, whilst completely missing the hundreds of thousands of millions of incarcerated people who are by no means in this bracket. As Carrie Hayden said, nothing’s ever simple.

The only real drawback of this book, and this is like saying my least favourite part of Jurassic Park was all the dinosaurs, is the constant focus on death does leave the reader feeling well, a bit down in the dumps. Death, whilst being important to be aware of, shouldn’t dominate your thoughts. Obviously, when reading a book about the last days of 7 condemned criminals, death is pretty much the only subject on offer. Still, great book, damn enjoyable.

I give this book a walloping seven point seven out of a possible ten.

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