A former Moscow correspondent for The Economist, AD Miller is an expert on the land of contradictions that is post-Communist Russia. His debut novel is an electrifying tour of the dark side of Moscow, and of human nature. Nick is an English lawyer working in Moscow. He meets a bewitching girl, Masha, and is instantly drawn into her world. His project on a major loan to a subsidiary of an energy company continues while, psychologically, he becomes entangled with Masha's life.
The novel is narrated in the first person as a letter to Nick's fiancée in England, evoking a story within a story. From Nick's tone and words there are intimations of a future crash; harbingers of a downfall. A sub-text is the dispassionate way Nick refers to his fiancée versus the overwhelming love he felt for Masha.
This is a Russia gleaming with strip joints, call girls, malevolent overlords, fraudsters, overnight millionaires; but in which the old beg on snowy streets and tramps ring random doorbells seeking shelter from hypothermic death. The overriding theme is corruption and the way that morals can become corroded, but the novel is multi-layered; subtle rather than strident, and imbued with a bruised beauty.
Miller's portrait of Moscow is fluid. He juxtaposes the honesty of most with the twisted face of oppression that renders all expendable commodities. He is masterful at capturing small details: "a dark crust... that was how your insides looked after a few years in Moscow, and maybe your soul too"; "a $10,000 suit and a murderer's smile... equal parts twinkle and menace".
Protection rackets are omnipresent, and bribes to procure jobs and draft-dodging are routine. A policeman to whom Nick reports a disappearance has a sign above his desk: "I cannot drink flowers or chocolates", and casts Nick "a commercial version of a pass, a sort of cash-hither smile". This is a country so controlled that residents must inform authorities before moving house, heating is often centrally operated, and the authorities pull up flowers in flowerbeds so that they don't die in public. In contrast, they have no qualms about buying the services of hitmen to deal with dissenters or other prickly thorns in their all-encompassing grip, and murderers resurface in Kremlin jobs. The spectres of a sinister past lurk: ancestors killed in the Gulags; persecution or silencing.
Woven into the tale of a country riddled with corrupting cancer is a gorgeously crafted story of a man hurtling into love. Eroticism is spare, nerve-tingling: "The fine blond hairs on the knots of her spine glowed in the moonlight... a love letter written on her body in invisible ink."
Contrasting innocence with the malevolence of state-sanctioned evil produces an intoxicating mixture. Even the everyday is shot through with a visual intensity: workers in the snow look like "an army of angry ants". We don't find out the colloquial meaning of snowdrops until the end, but it relates to the covering up of ugliness.
"Russia is like polonium. It attacks all your organs at once," Nick says. Snowdrops, in a different way, assaults all your senses with its power and poetry, and leaves you stunned and addicted.
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