Christopher Wilson (Faber & Faber, £7.99)

It’s unfortunate for Christopher Wilson that this comes out so soon after Armando Iannucci’s brilliant film The Death of Stalin as it covers much of the same ground. But it does so from a very different viewpoint and on its own terms.

Twelve-year-old Yuri is the son of a vet, with whom he lives in an apartment at the Moscow Zoo. A childhood collision with a tram caused him terrible injuries, and although his body has mostly healed, he’s been left with brain damage. There are holes in his memory, he says, and “sense gets knotted”. His condition has also left him with a permanent smile and the inability to stop himself blurting out any awkward questions that occur to him, which in the 1950s Soviet Union is dicing with death.

But that smile has the uncanny effect of getting people to open up. Whether he wants them to or not, Yuri finds strangers offloading their innermost thoughts to him. It’s a blessing and a curse, as he discovers when two men appear at the door and whisk him and his father off to Stalin’s dacha. The dictator has had a stroke, and, since all the doctors have been locked up on suspicion of treachery, his men have turned to a vet to treat him. Yuri has been brought along as his dad’s assistant, but the great leader is so amused by him that he asks the boy to stay and be his food-taster.

Over the next few weeks (his dad has mysteriously disappeared, but Yuri is too naïve to be suspicious), he becomes quite close to the ailing leader, accompanying him on walks and good-naturedly prompting him to keep talking. Wilson appears briefly to be humanising Stalin, emphasising the doddery old man over the ruthless tyrant, but he’s actually doing nothing of the kind. Stalin’s speech to Yuri about love reveals nothing but a ghastly inhumanity, the void where a soul should be.

With almost surreal flourishes, Wilson recreates the power struggle amongst Stalin’s inner circle, showing the boy being courted by Beria and Kruschev, who want Yuri to pass on to them anything he might glean from his conversations with the leader; while at night the atmosphere of concentrated paranoia is given almost cathartic expression in the crazed late-night dinners Stalin forced his inner circle to attend, getting them absurdly drunk, humiliating them and keeping them too hungover and exhausted to pose a threat. Drifting in and out of focus are the Stalin lookalikes Yuri befriends at the dacha, underlining the unreality of the situation and Stalin’s disconnection from his people.

Ultimately, it’s quite a slight book, with few hidden depths, but a charming one. Yuri, the innocent savant who thinks the atomic number of arsenic is common knowledge but struggles to understand anything but the most literal statements, is the kind of narrator who seems a bit shopworn nowadays. And yet it works. The horror and the humour never feel at odds with each other and Yuri’s amiability wins us over, as it did Stalin.