by Ronan Bennett
Following in the footsteps of Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who serialised their novels in newspapers, Ronan Bennett made weekly submissions to The Observer for seven months, the result of which is Zugzwang. The novel, set in St Petersburg in 1914, is narrated by Dr Otto Spethmann, a psychoanalyst implicated in several murders and a widower with a wayward 18-year-old daughter. In the midst of the police investigation into the crimes is a chess tournament, whose star is the mentally unstable genius Avrom Rozental. Along with beautiful socialite Anna Petrovna, Rozental becomes one of Spethmann's patients. While the doctor delves into Rozental's mind and unwisely falls in love with his female client, he continues a chess match with his friend, Polish violinist R.M. Kopelzon. As he plots his moves - which Bennett details with pictures of the board, accompanied by captions such as 'Can Spethmann win the all-important f-pawn?' - he mulls his seemingly impossible predicament in life among the pieces opening the path to his king. Hence the title Zugzwang, a chess term referring to a player's obligation to move even though he knows it will worsen his position. Cleverly plotted and paced, the novel is a chancy experiment that pays off for Bennett.