Retro Review: Snowdrops by AD Miller
26/07/2011 2 Comments
THOROUGHLY MODERN MOSCOW
Review: Val Nolan
Russia has always has a hint violence about it, a vast, tantalising empire cloaked for centuries in paranoia and cruelty. Yet for all the oppression of the Imperial and Soviet eras, the fall of the USSR has left ordinary Russians in the middle of a new kind of brutality: an everyday war of everyone against everyone else. Russia today is a mafia state of thick-necked ex-KGB oil men dismembering each other for control of Siberian resources, Oligarchs strong-armed in turn by the Kremlin through bogus law-suits and made-up tax demands.
Such is background for AD Miller’s confident but unassuming debut novel. A graduate of Cambridge and Princeton, Miller served as Moscow correspondent with The Economist from 2004 to 2007 and so brings to his writing an understanding of Moscow life and customs which manifests in tiny details and beautiful asides. As much as it is a novel, Snowdrops is also a running commentary on Russian’s ‘automatic national pride’ or the ‘Asiatic smile that means nothing’ or the ‘axe-resistant steel’ on front doors ‘prettified with leader padding’ that lends the whole of upscale Moscow ‘the sense of a low-security asylum’.
The book’s hero, Nicholas, is an English lawyer working in the city on the ubiquitous ‘legal money laundering’ of the post-communism economy; his life is uncomplicated until the day he meets the stunning Masha, a girl who looks ‘like the honey trap in a cold war thriller’. Nicholas knows he should walk away but he is a young man in love, what is he to do?
Though marketed as a psychological thriller, Snowdrops is much closer to a coming-of-age story, a theme apparent both in Nicholas’s slide from innocence into amorality and in the portrayal of the new Russia itself. What’s more, the seductive possibilities of contemporary Moscow will be eerily familiar to Irish readers, a dangerous combination of privatization, rocketing property prices, and a complete lack of scruples.
It is a landscape which Miller’s prose navigates with a readable mix of wit and innocence. The cynical, journalistic portrayal of Russia is always there, yes, but the author allows us see the city through Nicholas’s naïve eyes first. His deepening relationship with Masha and the unravelling of his employer’s financial wheeler-dealing are plotted to create a fatal sense of ensnarement, and, though these slow burning strands don’t intersect quite as fully as one might like, each arrives at a satisfying, inevitable conclusion.
En route there, Snowdrops revisits the predictable Russian set pieces of magical dachas, debauched nightclubs, and babushkas with painfully memories of the war, however Miller’s take is fresh enough to save the story from cliché. Nothing in the novel feels laboured, or, worse, like tourist guide writing. Everything here has been earned by both the author and his characters; the only constants in their Moscow are death and IKEA. It is a place filled with ‘new-age serfs from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Whereverstan’, a city ‘where you’re always seeing things through arches and in car parks and underpasses before you realise it might be better not to’. Miller’s Russians will do ‘the impossible thing; the thing you think they can’t do, the thing you haven’t even thought of’.
Bolstering this is Nicholas’s own appetite for absolution. ‘I need to tell someone about Russia,’ he says, ‘even if it hurts’. He is compelled to share not only his experiences but also the plight of regular Muscovites. As such his story is one of hedonism and desperation, of corruption and kindness in equal measure. Miller aims high, but Snowdrops does not disappoint.
Originally published in the Irish Examiner, 22nd January 2011, Weekend, pp. 28-29.
Other posts you may enjoy:
- ‘Forester’s lost novel proves to be a real find’: my Irish Examiner review of CS Foresters’s The Pursued.
- ‘Eschewing Hollywood, Franco writes the real California: my Irish Examiner review of James Franco’s Palo Alto.