Monday, 8 August 2011
Author: AD Miller
Number of pages: 288
Started: 4 August 2011
Finished: 8 August 2011
I smelled it before I saw it. There was a crowd of people standing around on the pavement and in the road, most of them policemen, some talking on mobile phones, some smoking, some looking, some looking away. From the way I came, they were blocking my view, and at first I thought that with all the uniforms it must be a traffic accident or maybe an immigration bust. Then I caught the smell. It was a smell like the kind you come home to if you forget to put your rubbish out before you go on holiday—ripe but acidic, strong enough to block out the normal summer aromas of beer and revolution. It was the smell that had given it away.
From about ten metres away, I saw the foot. Just one, as if its owner was stepping very slowly out of a limousine. I can still see the foot now. It was wearing a cheap black slip-on shoe, and above the shoe there was a stretch of grey sock, then a glimpse of greenish flesh. The cold had kept it fresh, they told me. They didn’t know how long it had been there. Maybe all winter, one of the policemen speculated. They’d used a hammer, he said, or possibly a brick. Not a good job, he said. He asked me if I wanted to see the rest of it. I said no, thank you. I’d already seen and learned more than I needed to during that last winter.
You’re always saying that I never talk about my time in Moscow or about why I left. You’re right, I’ve always made excuses, and soon you’ll understand why. But you’ve gone on asking me, and for some reason lately I keep thinking about it—I can’t stop myself. Perhaps it’s because we’re only three months away from “the big day,” and that somehow seems a sort of reckoning. I feel like I need to tell someone about Russia, even if it hurts. Also that probably you should know, since we’re going to make these promises to each other, and maybe even keep them. I think you have a right to know all of it. I thought it would be easier if I wrote it down. You won’t have to make an effort to put a brave face on things, and I won’t have to watch you.
You can find the whole book here
Snowdrops is an intensely riveting psychological drama that unfolds over the course of one Moscow winter, as a young Englishman's moral compass is spun by the seductive opportunities revealed to him by a new Russia: a land of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical dachas and debauched nightclubs; a place where secrets - and corpses - come to light only when the deep snows start to thaw...
Snowdrops is a chilling story of love and moral freefall: of the corruption, by a corrupt society, of a corruptible young man. It is taut, intense and has a momentum as irresistible to the reader as the moral danger that first enchants, then threatens to overwhelm, its narrator.
What I thought:
This was the first book I read from the 2011 Booker shortlist. Whilst the title might suggest a gentle novel about the countryside, this book was actually about corruption in Russia – “snowdrops” being bodies that appear from under the snow when the spring thaw sets in.
The book was written as a confessional letter to the narrator’s fiancée to clear his conscience before their forthcoming wedding. I think for me, this is where the flaws began to emerge. On a few levels, I found that approach unconvincing. First, the confessional was written in a way that didn’t ring true to me. When conversations were relayed, they were written as direct speech, rather than reported speech and that didn’t sit well with me. That might sound like a minor point, but it made the way the book was written seem contrived. Not least illustrated by the narrator relaying verbatim conversations, some of which were in Russian and then adding in brackets, for his fiancées benefit, the English translation. I just didn’t find it convincing. I also felt that there were details added (about travelling on the metro etc) that were there to show the author’s knowledge of all things Russian rather than to actually enhance the plot. If the narrator had been a journalist or similar, I might have believed that he had a more “painting the picture” style, but he was a lawyer and the detail just felt superfluous.
Second, I didn’t believe that the narrator would have conveyed the amount of information that he did. Whilst he might have wanted to be as honest as possible, would he really have wanted to tell his fiancée about the detail of having sex with his Russian girlfriend for the first time, including the detail of her sister watching. There is confessional and there is confessional.
So, what about the plot itself? This was based around corruption in Russia and the narrator’s role in a deal that went very sour. The premise was reasonable, and the story touched on how easily we can get caught up in things, perhaps blinded by our infatuation by someone and our desire to please or impress them. But I found the plot a bit light. I have read other reviews and a number of people found the plot very gripping and a real page-turner, but for me it felt like it lacked a certain something to make it convincing or gripping.
I feel as though I am judging this book very harshly. I think in part my view is coloured by this book being shortlisted for a major prize, and I therefore expected something more. It wasn’t a bad book, but it just wasn’t one that seemed to offer anything particularly special