Sunday, December 4, 2011

I wanna go to Russia

Suddenly, after reading A. D. Miller's Booker shortlisted debut novel, Snowdrops, I had the urge to book a flight to Russia. Miller has a very enviable gift of describing settings. You feel the extremely uncomfortable cold in Moscow, where temperature can fall below zero (enough for your mobile to be stuck in your ungloved hand when you use it outside). In Moscow, you can sense the acrid taste of corruption and smell the desperation of its citizens.

I thought I would be reading a thriller, something fast paced with a clever resolution at the end. Snowdrops is something deliciously more than that. It is indeed a crime novel, but it's also a travelogue of sorts, portraying the Moscow that you wouldn't see in guidebooks, the Moscow where single women dress up as prostitutes and where cabdrivers can prey on their passengers. It's a very unflattering picture of Moscow that's depicted in Miller's debut novel, but Moscow is all the more fascinating for it.
'Snowdrop. Your friend is a snowdrop.' That's what the Russians call them -- the bodies that float up into the light in the thaw. Drunks, most of them, and homeless people who just give up and lie down into the whiteness, and murder victims hidden in the drifts by their killers. [page 3]
You know from the start of Snowdrops that something will go wrong. Nicholas Pratt, the main character of the novel, writes a letter to his fiancée, forming the novel's narrative. Nick is an expat, a lawyer assigned to work in Moscow. One day, he meets two girls who introduce themselves as sisters -- Masha and Katya. It is revealed later in the novel that these two aren't really sisters nor cousins. They are players in a scam involving selling housing units in Moscow. Miller adds an extra layer to his story -- the romantic relationship that develops between Masha and Nick.

How Nick becomes part of this scam unfolds slowly in the novel, but it's not the kind that leads to ennui. In fact, Miller's writing appears to be beautifully controlled, focusing more on character introspection. Masha and Katya urge Nick to help their old aunt named Tatiana Vladimirovna move out of her Moscow apartment and into a new residential building. That's the scam right there. Nick finds out that Tatiana isn't a relation to the girls, that the residential building is never meant to be lived in, that Masha and Katya duped Nick in giving money to an oily character who appears to be a middleman of some sort.

In the end, both girls disappear. Tatiana, whom Nick has grown fond of, also goes missing. It is never mentioned what happened to the old lady, but it's a good assumption that she's been murdered. Miller toys with the reader's imagination. You just know that something grisly has happened to Tatiana. I love authors like these.

Read this book if:
  1. You've always wanted to visit Moscow.
  2. You like novels with that Hitchcock feel to them.
  3. You love the cold.

5 comments:

Mrs. B. said...

I really enjoyed this one and was surprised that most book bloggers didnt like it. Good to know you liked it too.

Peter S. said...

Hello, Mrs. B! Hmmm... Maybe they were expecting something like a very edgy thriller. I also enjoyed Half Blood Blues.

Stepford Mum said...

Peter, ano ba?! You keep adding to my reading wishlist! A good thing, of course, if only there was time enough to read all those books I've got stacked in precarious towers all over my apartment.

Peter S. said...

Stepford Mum, my apologies! Hehehe. Someday, I do wish to visit your apartment and take pictures of your bookshelves!

Jabel Erica said...

I want to read this! :) I've always wanted to go to Russia, sir Peter!