Publication Date – 30 October 2018
From the mind of one of modern fiction’s most controversial authors comes a two-in-one fantastic and elaborate piece of historical fiction that utilises an intriguing narrative device to create one of 2018’s most unique stories.
Young student Alexander Karpenko is the bright, talented and ambitious child of two hardworking citizens of the Soviet Union. Living in Leningrad in 1968, Alexander’s dream is to become the first democratically elected president of his country. However, when he is betrayed and his father is killed by the KGB, Alexander and his mother realise that their only hope is to flee Russia and make a new life for themselves in another country.
Arriving at the docks, Alexander and his mother are given a choice between two different ships: one heading to London or one heading to New York. The decision is made by the flip of a coin, and Alexander’s life splits into two separate paths: one where he heads to Britain and one where he heads to America. Alexander arrives in these countries with great ambition and a desire to succeed no matter what.
Over the next 30 years, in both these lives, Alexander finds success in a two separate ways. He fights his way up from the bottom as a lowly immigrant to an influential person, overcoming obstacles and antagonists along the way. Both Alexanders’ journeys are inspirational, but no matter what these two Alexanders accomplish, the fate of their home country is always on their minds, and the shadow of the Soviet Union constantly surrounds them.
Jeffrey Archer is a rather interesting individual, with a very eventful and controversial background. A former British MP, Archer is probably better known for the various accusations of fraud he has attracted throughout his life, and he has even spent some time in jail as a result. However, rather than let that ruin his public profile, Archer has used his experience and imagination to create a number of fascinating novels, many of which utilise aspects of his political, academic or professional life or expertise to some degree. As a result, Archer is now one of the most high-profile authors in the world and has written over 20 adult novels, including the three books in his Kane and Abel series and the seven books in his bestselling Clifton Chronicles. On top of that, Archer has also written a number of short stories, a couple of plays, several children’s books and his Prison Diaries, three non-fiction novels that chronicle his life in prison.
Heads You Win is an extremely fascinating novel from Archer, which takes his protagonist on two separate adventures through over 30 years of American and British history and life. Archer utilises a very clever divergent timelines narrative device (think Sliding Doors), which creates two separate timelines around the different outcomes of one event, in this case, the outcome of a coin toss. As a result, in one timeline, the protagonists and his mother get on a ship to London, while in another timeline they board a ship bound for New York. This is a very interesting concept to utilise in this story, and one that works to create two separate narrative threads to follow. Both of these storylines focus on the protagonist attempting to find his place in the country that he eventually ends up in, and then moves onto the protagonist becoming a powerful and influential individual in his own way, all the while dealing with the terrible people that seem to inhabit Archer’s world.
I rather enjoyed both of the separate storylines in this book, and had a lot of fun seeing the different or similar ways that the protagonist attempted to make his fortune in each lifetime. The differences between these two storylines happen right away, as in the London timeline, Alexander and his mother find themselves on a nice ship with a friendly crew who mostly want to help, while the New York timeline finds them in a poorly maintained vessel with a self-serving crew who seek to exploit the two main characters. I found it rather fascinating to see the way that their treatment and the environments they find themselves in change the way in which they act. For example, Alexander’s experience in the English setting encourage him to seek the full Cambridge academic lifestyle, while his American counterpart was less focused on his formal education and learned more on the street.
Both of these divergent timelines feature an intriguing look at the cities and countries that the protagonists end up in, and both serve as a good historical backdrop to each of the main storylines, featuring several real historical events and some historical characters. For example, the Alexander who ends up in the American timeline is forced to fight in the Vietnam War, while the British Alexander rubs elbows with a number of the country’s prominent politicians. I liked how the divergent ways that the two separate protagonists gained their power and prestige matched the country that there were in. The American Alexander became rich through his business acumen and financial brilliance, while the British Alexander went the academic route and eventually become deeply involved with the British political system, something close to the author’s heart. Not only does this help match the locations and people that the protagonist deals with, but it allows the two separate stories to diverge out slightly, with the British storyline containing political intrigue, while the American storyline reads a little bit more like a financial thriller. While the focus on the protagonist’s two adopted homelands is a great part of this novel, the protagonist’s history in the Soviet Union is a major part of this story. The initial chapters capture the uncertainty and despair that inhabitants of the Soviet Union would have felt in the 1960s, while the character’s subsequent visits helped highlight the obvious differences between the Soviet Union and the countries that Alexander escaped to. There is also a rather exciting reveal about one of the Russian characters towards the end of the book that will prove to be the most memorable part of Heads You Win, and is definitely something to look out for.
While I enjoyed the divergent timelines narrative device that Archer employed throughout Heads You Win I did feel that he could have done more with it. I would have loved to see a bit more crossover between the two separate timelines, and, for example, see how key characters from one storyline would have fared without their Alexander in their lives. Instead there is minimal crossover between these two separate storylines, which feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. I am also not the biggest fan of what these quick crossovers revealed, as it strongly hinted that both storylines actually exist together at the same time, and as a result, there are two Alexanders existing in the world at the same time. This is a bit of a weird twist, and while it does not negatively impact the vast majority of either storyline, it does result in a conclusion that some may find slightly confusing. As a result, while this did slightly mark down my rating of Heads You Win, the split storyline concept is a fantastic and unforgettable part of this book and makes it quite a distinctive read.
This latest novel from one of the world’s most colourful professional authors is a fun, historical thrill ride that features a very unique and memorable narrative device. With a great look at two different countries during the same historical time period and featuring two separate by similar stories of life, adversity and success, this is an extremely enjoyable novel that will appeal to a varied range of readers. Heads You Win is definitely worth checking out, and I am planning to keep an eye out for the next read from Archer.