Snowdrops by A. D. Miller
Genre: Noir, crime fiction, psychological fiction.
This debut novel by A D Miller was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Set in the early 2000s Russia, it is a study of decadence and moral depravity of a society and its effect on individuals.
Nick Platt, a British lawyer working in Moscow finds the limitless indulgence of the East a good change from the smooth and uneventful life of his native England. He manages to convince himself that he is in love with the stunning Russian beauty Masha and agrees to help her aunt in her search for an apartment. The illicit affair juxtaposed with shady dealings at his workplace and the uncertainity of life of an average person in Russia forms the backdrop of the novel.
The book takes its name from the flower snowdrop, which is one of the first flowers to appear in the spring, as it works its way through the snow to bloom. For many cultures the snowdrop symbolizes purity but in some Victorian customs the flower is considered to bring bad luck and represents death.
The foreword of the book mentions the usage of the word snowdrop in Moscow slang. It is a corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw.
So, the allusion to the Moscow slang and the mention of the discovery of a corpse at the onset is expected to set the pace of this crime thriller.
Yet the book starts with a woman and the hint of a lustful relationship, the engaging mention of Moscow/ Russian landscape, the talk of the soon fading summer and the book turns into a memoir of the author’s time in Russia. Russia is reviled, exclaimed at, wondered about and at the same time loved to distraction.
Snowdrops is full of ‘soft focus anecdotes’, groping for time and places, putting the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle into place for the writer to understand his own role and susceptibility to deception as he addresses and confesses to his soon-to-be wife.
Till the middle of this short novel, the reader is left wondering as to what genre the book really belongs to or what really would the climactic revelation be. Is it going to be a story of love lost and regained or of a wasteful lust or a meandering through the stunningly beautiful and extremely harsh Russian winter and its subsequent comparison with England. Is it a delving into relationships… of love, of familial ties, of expectations and a lingering sense of failure?
The pace is languid and the scenes are right out of the writers’ head so that the characters are not delineated very well. We know of Masha’s coldness only through the eyes of Nick’s mother and of a hint of her being dangerous through the Cossack’s warning. This reinforces how blind love can be and how self limiting can a person’s beliefs be.
Nick, the protagonist and the narrator is unbelievably naive or he just chooses to go with the flow. He could sit up and take notice of the irregularities and the suspicious loopholes in his dealings with people ; the Cossack, Masha and Katya who are not sisters, the real estate dealer but he chooses to ignore it all till the corpse looks him in the face. He does nothing to speed up his evacuation from Moscow; he is the narrator and a chance pawn and an accomplice by way of non interference.
The plot and the storyline is a little too predictable because of the hints to the immoral and corrupt fabric of the society at that point of time. The reader fears that a certain thing might happen and it does. The reader is always ahead of the narrator in understanding and predicting.
Tatiana Vladimirovna, the aunt to the girls Masha and Katya is lovable and it is through her that the winter thaw seems to set in the reader’s heart and in the book’s pace. So the single thread narrative becomes a tapestry of people and events as the book moves on the delightful streets of St. Petersberg, Odessa and the famous promenade of Nevsky Prospekt.
This is the protagonist’s ode to Russia -the place that he misses even though it was where he was betrayed by the decadent system and his own slide into a moral decay, by virtue of being there for too long and becoming a part of the deception leading to criminal participation.
All in all, a good enough read and one that keeps the reader looking for more from A. D. Miller.
Special thanks to Bloggeray for recommending and for reading the book at the same time. Skip over to his blog for his excellent review.