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A D Miller's Snowdrops was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. I imagine this was for the defiant and daring nature of his debut thriller, a retrospective tale from a British lawyer who spent a number of years in Moscow. The lawyer is Nicholas Platt, and Miller starts by making it clear this is a man wanting to explain something to his fiancee so that she knows the sort of man he is before they marry.
The fact that it is written suggests cowardice, and the tale itself doesn't deter you from this thought. Platt is a lawyer who works with two colleagues, a Russian and an Italian, in order to broker deals from foreign investors seeking to help fund Russian 'businesses'. To help explain this, one of the plot threads features Nick and his colleagues brokering the equivalent of a multi million pound deal with corrupt and dangerous people, involving characters from both sides of the law, some seemingly above it, some within in it, and some defying it and laughing at it.
Running alongside this is a sort of romance element to the novel. Nick falls for Masha, a stunning beauty by all accounts if the descriptions are to be believed, although I kind of think the presentation of the tale to his fiancee and the retrospective nature may taint his memories into thinking she's more stunning than she actually was. He saves her and her sister from a robber on a train, and despite the warnings from his friends of honey traps and women using their lure over men for ill gotten gains, he jumps in feet first, wishing to believe the best.
Somehow, we sort of know the results of everything before they all happen, and a separate lesser detailed sideline involving a missing neighbour and another who is more concerned about the disappearance than Nick himself lends itself to display Nick as a coward even more. Cowardice plays a large part in the characterisation of the book's subject, and as such you don't actually feel like you want to shake him and tell him to 'man up', you just despise him and wish he'd grow a pair instead of hoping that things will just turn out alright all the time.
In theory, this should have been a marvel of a book, but I just felt that it didn't really go anywhere. The plots meandered towards their ends, there were no surprises in store, and it all sort of petered out without having much of an effect on me. There were lengthy descriptions and detailed thoughts that I found hard top maintain my focus on, and if anything this made it one of the harder books to stay with through until the end.
There are a few saving graces, though. Miller clearly adores Moscow, if only from an interest perspective. The crime ridden prose throughout the book tells of corruption around every corner, that there should be no trust even among friends, and the physical descriptions of the streets and areas Nick inhabits and visits are expertly done and provide a clear vision for you to follow in your mind's eye as you read. Were it not for these moments and the anticipation of some of Nick's trust hopefully coming to fruition, I would have left the book a long way before the end. As it was, my disappointment was hampered by the stunning descriptive work.
However, were I after a geography, culture or history lesson on Moscow then it wouldn't necessarily have been a novel I would have turned to. Ian Rankin's success includes the vivid descriptions of the areas of Scotland the author uses, but the plot and characters are what makes you keep turning the pages; the same could be said of Michael Connelly and Los Angeles, Donna Leon and Venice, or any author who maintains a constant location in their work. A location is key and as a tool is often invaluable to an author, but that it cannot be all that holds it together, and many other elements of the book were found wanting in my eyes. I thought that the weakness of the character, although consistent, was annoying and somewhat over the top - no one is that naive all the time and able to be as successful as Nick had clearly become. The lengthy details of some of the business aspects of the story were overly drawn and confusing at times - less content and more impact would have made it flow better. It also lacked a decent conclusion to the content and plot threads, something that left me thinking that while it was slightly refreshingly different to not have a fanfare plot twist or anything, it petered out without so much of a sniff.
Overall then, despite the promising elements and the fact that this was not only shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize but was also included in the recent World Book Day top 100 novels of all time, I can honestly say that was unimpressed by this debut novel and somewhat disappointed. I can see how people with more of a pre existing knowledge of understanding of Moscow and Russian culture may find it holds more appeal for them, and it's certainly not a 'bad' book per se, but I just didn't enjoy anywhere near as much as I had hoped, thought and trusted I would do.
Nicholas Pratt is an English lawyer who's lived in Moscow for nearly four years. Together with an Italian and a Russian colleague he works on behalf of foreign banks that want to lend money to Russian businesses, especially in the oil industry. We're in the mid-noughties, and it's boom time in Russia.
What does a 38-year-old single male foreigner with a good salary do in Moscow in his spare time? Although his Russian is quite good, he mainly socialises with other expats. They meet at restaurants, visit shows or strip-joints and drink a lot. Of course, the top notch establishments where the oligarchs and their entourage, corrupt politicians and Mafia gangsters meet, are off limits for him. A nanosecond-long glance is enough and the bouncer knows that Nick is not in their league, money-wise he's a nobody.
Occasionally he has a short fling, he never has to make a great effort, there are always Russian women ready to start an affair with a foreigner. One day, when leaving a Metro station, he saves two sisters from a would-be purse snatcher. He's immediately attracted to the elder one, Masha, a 24-year-old green-eyed beauty. To cut a long story short, they become lovers and Nick starts believing that this time it's the real thing, that what he feels is love and that it may even be reciprocal. His friend Steve, a journalist, who's been an expat all over the world and has seen it all, warns him that there will be a honey-trap. "Do you think she wants you for your looks?" And, more cynically, "In Russia, there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories." Sadly, he's right as far as Nick's case is concerned. I'm not giving the plot away when I mention this, already on the very first pages we learn that there will be no happy ending.
Parallel to the love story runs a business deal of gigantic dimensions. A five-hundred-million-dollar loan has to be cleared for a crazy scheme in the oil business. Nick's firm has to discuss details with 'the Cossack', a shady character if there ever was one. He tells them that everything is going according to plan. Are they so naïve that they believe him or are they as greedy as everyone else around them that they want to believe him? We don't know but we're not surprised at all at the way the deal develops.
A minor thread involves Nick's neighbour's search for his friend living in a house nearby. He hasn't seen him for a long time and is unable to contact him. Nothing much is made of this throughout the story, but when the man is found, an abysmal dimension opens for Nick.
The topos of the expat, who hasn't got roots in his homeland any more and is unable to grow new roots in the new country, who imperceptibly slides away from a firm set of moral values and into criminal activities, isn't new. I've read several novels and short stories on such characters, but they're all set in warmer climates, preferably in the former British colonies in Asia and Africa. The heat and humidity, hardly bearable for a European, play an important rôle when it comes to finding an explanation why a character dissolves so-to-speak. What a contrast is A.D. Miller's Moscow with temperatures of -30°C! One imagines that the cold keeps the brain cells fresh, but in Nick's case it doesn't. He's weak, spineless, amoral even, he deludes and lies to himself, and he'd do that in whatever part of the world and climate. It's risky for an author to base a story on a weak character, but Miller pulls it off here. Mainly, I'd say, because the supporting characters are well drawn.
The novel is written as a confessional letter to Nick's English fiancée, before they take the great step. He wants her to understand who he really is. He writes down everything about his stay in Moscow, he's too cowardly to talk to her face to face. The author had a good idea here in principle. The main protagonist tells her - and us - what happened in the past and reflects on it in retrospect at the same time. Of course, there isn't too much suspense left in this way, the suspense there is comes from the discrepancy between what happens to Nick and what he does himself but doesn't understand or refuses to acknowledge. The reader wants to shake him and shout at him to wake up.
What gets on my nerves, however, is that on every other page we're reminded of the fact that we're reading a retrospect. "When I think back...", "...it seems to me now...", "I remember...", "In retrospect" and so on and so forth. There are many flowery phrases to express the same idea. Thank you, Mr Miller, but I got your narrative perspective right at the beginning and would have been able to remember it up to the end. One star off for this.
Apart from that I enjoyed the novel, not only for the story but also for the so-called realia. The setting is Moscow, we're not in Inner Earth or Outer Space but in the capital of Russia. We don't want to read merely the plot, that would take us only minutes - and where would the joy of reading be? The author has to put flesh on it so-to-speak, create believable characters and move them around in a realistic setting. It's their decision how much of the real place they want to incorporate. Donna Leon's thrillers set in Venice, for example, can be taken as guidebooks for a city tour, for her Venice itself is a character. Other authors, who don't know the setting well if at all, contend themselves with just occasionally dropping the name of some sights.
I was in Moscow three times, the first time in the late 1960s as a student, and later, in the 1970s, twice as a teacher with a group of students. That was a long time ago, but I recognised a lot in Miller's descriptions of the city and was repeatedly baffled of how much has changed since then. In order to bring the characters to life an author must give them a place to live, dress and feed them. There's no doubt at all that Miller knows what he's writing about. He lived in Moscow for three years as a correspondent for the Economist and travelled the country widely. With minute details he succeeds in creating a typical Russian atmosphere. Did you know, for example, that Russians offer jam together with tea? No bread, only jam in a small bowl which is eaten with a teaspoon.
Reading the novel one can come to the conclusion that all Russians are debauched, corrupt egomaniacs if not outright criminals. The 'snowdrops' of the title are, in Moscow slang, corpses that lie buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw. The novel begins with the discovery of a decomposed corpse which has been lying in the boot of a snow covered car parked in front of Nick's house during the whole winter. Thus the tone is set.
Is it PC to write about a people in this way and, more so, as a foreigner? Of course, not all Russians are corrupt, but, sadly, all Russians have been in contact with corrupt people. The Russian language assistants we've had as tenants tell us about their teachers at school and university offering their students the exam questions in advance if they pay them a bribe. How can they? Well, a guide leading groups of foreign tourists through a museum earns more in two days than a teacher in a month. Many professors have a second job to get by . . . Miller says in an interview, "The kinds of crime that the book describes, the pervasive corruption it depicts and the awful vulnerability of anyone without powerful connections are real, as people who've spent time in Moscow will realise." Why am I not surprised that the Russian language assistant who's living in our house this year doesn't want to return home when her year's up?
All this sounds very negative, but don't be afraid that the novel will pull you down. Nick is not a tragic hero, he's a fool, you can't suffer with him. Besides, the fascination for Moscow, Russia and the Russians shines through despite everything. I can recommend Snowdrops for readers who don't want their thrillers always set in the same places and who're interested in getting to know something about Europe's Wild East .
Snowdrops is A.D. Miller's debut novel, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011.