Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

"Snowdrops" is a first novel that was surprisingly shortlisted for this year's Booker. The "surprise" was because it is essentially a thriller, and they don't usually get mentioned in such circles.

Set in early 21st century Moscow, its a short, succinct novel about contemporary Russia, its contradictions, chaos and corruption. A "snowdrop" we are told from the off, is a body that is only found after the thaw when the snow recedes. Yet if this implies a post-Glasnost KGB tale - which I was perhaps expecting - its far from it. Like Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" its a tale told after the fact by a youngish male narrator who has somewhat absently ended up in a particular place and time. The narrator is in his mid-thirties, and is writing down the story of what happened to him in Russia so that his wife-to-be (who we never encounter) can know about this particular episode in his life.

In tight, short chapters Miller sketches out a Moscow that we probably imagined, but hadn't seen, of corrupt officials, manipulative oligarchs, cheap prostitutes and naive foreigners, stranded there, not on some Soviet-era diplomat mission but as emissaries of the new money pouring into Russia. Miller gives us two stories of corruption - the one, an oil deal that is taking up Nick Platt's day job, and a love story when he meets Masha on the train. Told in retrospect, we know from the off that the story is not of true love running smoothe and the device provides both an intimacy to the novel but also its weakness. When Ford Madox Ford or Graham Greene "looked back" it was a framing device which then left us with the story, told as it unfolded, but here our narrator frequently interjects as he knows the ending and offers his regret even before the deeds he is ashamed of take place. Nick is a "reliable" narrator, but it is Masha, the Russian lover he takes, who is "unreliable" though we never hear from her except through him. There are plenty of clues about her suspect nature - from her travelling everywhere with her "sister" Katya, to her introducing Nick to her "aunt" and getting him to help with the paperwork around a property deal. The plot is more like an episode of "Hustle" than a Le Carre, with Nick our unwitting mark. But you can see what Miller is trying to do. The back cover references both Greene and Robert Harris. He takes from the latter the near-screenplay slickness of storytelling, and from the former a classic foreigner abroad scenario. Yet a corporate lawyer seems curiously without jeopardy, even if he's as distanced from his home town (Luton of all places) as any number of Greene heroes.

In many ways, the novel seems a device to look around the new Russia with the eye of someone who is both an insider (he has been there 4 years, and speaks passable Russian) and a visitor. The small cast of characters that Nick interacts with, may appear to be stereotypes (and that he meets the same policeman twice or bumps into Katya accidentally in a bar seems to imply Moscow is little more than a village), but they are drawn with care, and you want to be there be his side as he begins to fall into the trap that is clearly being laid for him.

I enjoyed the book, its a decent first novel, clearly structured despite its single sitting length. Nick is a distant character in many ways, but never really comes to life. His mother visits and she makes the comment that Masha is "too cold" for him - yet he seems a curious innocent abroad - having fled to Russia in his mid-thirties when the work opportunity arose, but without much of a life behind. Indeed, had Greene wrote this, you'd feel there would be a love affair behind him, not in front. It has a certain "mock noir" feel to it that you find in quite a few contemporary novels - where the experience seems second hand, somehow. It's that lack of jeopardy again; with the experience in Moscow both a life-changing one but also unimportant. He will return to the life he always expected to have - with Moscow an interlude that could have either made or break him but in the end does neither.

"Snowdrops" is well worth a read, and the sense of Moscow at a time of momentous, constant change is well-drawn, yet I can't help thinking that compared to, say, Ian Rankin's Edinburgh, the description of the city seems partial. Even the love affair at the novel's heart doesn't seem to come alive. Compare to the dark forces that Ian McEwan writes about in his 50s cold war thriller "The Innocent" for instance. Perhaps its not its genre attributes that got it to the Booker shortlist, but more its desire to read something from the story - yet Nick is hardly a compelling character. With the other characters - including Steve, his drunken, priapic journalist friend - drawn straight from central casting, the relationship with Masha has too much work to do; but it feels as distant to the reader, as it does to the narrator telling it retrospectively. I think there's probably a desire, via the scenes with the "aunt", Tatiana Vladimirovna, to contrast the old and new Russia, but again Nick is too distant a figure, too much of an onlooker. As the plots around him unfold you find he's not even the key actor in his own story, merely an attendant figure. Like a "mark" in one of "Hustle's" long cons, he could be anyone - though that, perhaps, is the point. Even this "new" Russia is seen as a passing phase - a moment in time before some of the darker practices become frowned upon, the gold rush over. In this world love, property, even life, are seen as transitional - and Nick, looking back, misses feeling that alive.

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