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December 28, 2011

Snowdrops by A.D.Miller

by gordonmichaelsutton

I’d just finished reading David Baldacci’s ‘The Sixth Man’ – an ingenious and dramatic piece of US crime/thriller fiction. Don’t often read these books by the likes of Baldacci and Patricia Cornwell et al. For me, they’re a little like eating a ‘Whopper’ at Burger King; I can happily go for months and not want one. But every now and again, it’s the perfect bite to eat and satisfies a craving.

So I started ‘Snowdrops’  almost the minute I closed the last page on ‘The Sixth Man’. The debut novel of ‘The Economist’ journalist, A.D. Miller.  And shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize no less. Surely more gourmet dining than fast food I thought.

The novel’s set in contemporary Russia. Did I just say ‘contemporary’? By the end of the novel, much of life in modern day Moscow seems to have more in common with our cave-dwelling forebears than with the 21st Century. The novel meticulously records the bloat and excess of modern day Muscovites who’ve grown hugely wealthy and corrupt since the demise of the Soviet Union. It’s a grimly fascinating world. Like the complicit banker and lawyer-narrator, who come to realise they’re no more than “fleas on the Cossack’s arse”, as readers, we’re taken uncomfortably close to a disturbing and dirty world of vodka, prostitutes and cruel scams.

Authenticity is the novel’s strong suit I’d suggest. Sometimes subtly dealt, and at other times, it’s a hand played with brio. Here’s Miller describing part of the Metro system; “The old part of the Moscow Metro, in the city centre, is the sort of subway system you get if you give a tyrannical maniac all the marble, onyx and disposable human beings he can dream of.”

And it’s got pace too. Although I do wonder about books that start with the closing image. On balance, I think it’s a bit of a cheat, and acts as a phoney magnet dragging the reader forward. Have to wonder, too, about the value of the confessional device,  the narrator sharing his experiences and the confessional with the readers and an absentee confessor.

Where the novel falters a little more is with the credibility of the first person narrator. Moscow winters are undoubtedly very cold and eat at the soul, but are we being asked to believe that it’s numbed his common sense and reason too? I felt like I was at a pantomime at times, with our Prince Charming surrounded by all manner of stereotypical villains, and wanting to shout “Behind you”  or “Oh no it isn’t” to jolt his irritating gullibility. Give Baldacci his due, his characters are smart and mostly on the money.

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