‘The Diamond Eye’ by Kate Quinn is a thrilling historical fiction based on a truly heroic Russian female sniper during WWII

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn’s latest historical fiction novel, “The Diamond Eye,” is a fictionalized story of a Russian woman who became one of the most acclaimed snipers in WWII. In fact, in the author notes at the end of the book, Quinn states that while she usually explains how the fictional characters in the story relate to the real historical people, in this book “nearly every person named comes straight from the historical record.” Of course, it’s fiction. Quinn doesn’t know, and we don’t learn, exactly what transpired during those turbulent times when Germany invaded Russia. But Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a real woman, and she wrote a memoir that Quinn used to relate many of the events documented in the novel.

One rather shocking fact that emerges is that as in the novel, the real Alexei Pavlichenko seduced the barely 15-year-old Mila and abandoned her and their child. Yet she worked in a factory, went to university, and was working on her dissertation when Germany invaded Russia. Quinn’s writing brings to life this enigmatic (from historical documents) woman who was ruthless in her skill with a rifle to kill the enemy, who was the best mother she knew how to be, who loved passionately, and who charmed Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady.

The story is told in two timelines which are clearly indicated as such. One timeline is “The Soviet Delegation” during their visit to the United States in 1942 to ask for US support in the war. The other timeline begins five years before that in 1937 as we meet Mila and learn why she took the marksmanship classes that made her into a world-class sniper. That timeline eventually merges with the other timeline as Quinn does introduce a fictional plot to assassinate the president, FDR.

The first person narrative allows us to understand Mila and why she makes the choices she does. Why she joins the Army — she didn’t have to. We learn how a sniper thinks and what a sniper does. We come to understand it’s not “just” being a crack shot; it’s about planning and preparation. Perhaps the skill involved in the actual killing shot is only half the skill; the other half is being in the right place, camouflage, waiting hours or even days for the right opportunity. Interspersed with Mila’s narrative are “Notes by the First Lady,” notes that Eleanor Roosevelt keeps in which she shares her thoughts about not just Mila, but her husband and politics. An interesting side note is that now, with the Russian aggression and war against Ukraine, we see in the story how back then, when Ukraine was part of the USSR, the Communist Party made sure that all citizens were “Russians” and not “Ukrainians.” It’s no wonder that now Ukraine is so desperate and committed to keeping its freedom and autonomy.

There’s too much in the story to summarize, but know that once you start to read about Mila’s journey, you’ll find that you want to keep reading. You want to know if the hired assassin in the US manages to kill FDR and frame Mila (although we assume he won’t), and how Mila manages to thwart him. You’ll want to know if Mila makes it through the war, and you’ll flinch at the harrowing near-deadly episodes she does survive. And at the end, you’ll marvel at this life, an unknown woman who accomplished so much and lived so fiercely, and how eloquently Quinn wrote her story.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by William Morrow, the publisher, for review purposes.