Daily Archives: September 4, 2011

Book Review: Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

Title: Snowdrops
Author: A.D. Miller
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Genre: Literary Fiction, Thriller
ISBN: 978-1848874541
Pages: 273 pages
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4.5/5

The first novel by the author of “The Earl of Petticoat Lane”, an engaging family history set in London’s East End, was always going to be good. But “Snowdrops” is astonishingly good. Think Isaac Bashevis Singer crossed with Dashiell Hammett and just a hint of Dostoievsky, all translated into the idiom of a modern Moscow marinated in sex and corruption. It is atmospheric; it is painful; but it is also, surprisingly often, extremely funny.

The central figure is an English lawyer in his 30s–not really a star, more a wannabe who finds himself with a shot at the big time. He is engaged in a massive oil deal of some murkiness. He falls heavily for a seductive Russian girl he meets, apparently by chance, in the Metro. In a third plot line, a neighbour tries to get him to look into the disappearance of a friend. The strands twist together over the course of a long, cold, vodka-soaked Moscow winter, revealing their true pattern as the spring thaw reveals the frozen corpses which give the book its title.

Two things in particular make “Snowdrops” an addictive pleasure to read. One is its precise and evocative description of physical surroundings, from the psychedelic Moscow nightlife to the cold purity of the dacha and the thawing of Moscow’s river, “a vast snake sloughing off its skin”. The other is a keen ear for speech. “Respected Nikolai Ivanovich,” says his courtly old neighbour as Nicholas edges away with platitudes from undertaking a potentially disturbing assignment, “only an idiot smiles all the time.”

The story is written as a flashback, a letter from Nicholas, now back in London, to his fiancee there–a pale reflection of Masha, it would seem–clearing the decks before they marry. How and why he chooses to close his eyes to what is going on around him, how he loses his moral bearings, is the central question. We the readers know there is skulduggery afoot: signposts begin to cluster as the pages turn. Unease niggles increasingly at Nicholas, but he pushes it away rather than change direction. Is it passion for Masha? Love of life in the Moscow expat fast lane? Can he simply, ultimately not be bothered to make the effort to find stuff out?

Miller’s Moscow is a place where money can buy the most outlandish forms of fun, sex, and pleasure (all neatly detailed in Nick’s narrative); it’s an environment where some people become enmeshed in the atmosphere of corruption that permeates the place, and it’s a place where the sheer lack of morality is a normal way of life; not a place for the faint of heart. As one of Nick’s friends puts it:

“Russia…is like Lariam. You know, that malaria medicine that can make you have wild dreams and jump out of the window. You shouldn’t do it if you’re the kind of the person who gets anxious or guilty, Nick. You shouldn’t do Russia. Because you’ll crack.”

Nick’s infatuations take him over to the point where he doesn’t see what’s so obvious to the reader and to his well-meaning friends; his lack of common sense and moral bearing seems to have been absorbed through some sort of weird osmosis from the wider environment in which he lives.

Snowdrops is one of those books where the reader knows exactly what’s going on, or if not exactly, has a sort of premonition that there are bad things brewing. What I liked about this novel is that the author managed to set up the situation by dropping hints here and there that all is not what it seems, so that the reader has the anticipation of watching things unravel as the story progresses. The story is dark and often claustrophobic — there were times when I couldn’t wait to put the book down and take a breath of fresh air.

On the other hand, it’s hard to find any respect for Nicholas, and after finishing it, I remember thinking something along the lines of “that’s what happens when you think with the brain in your pants rather than the one in your head.” To be honest, though, I know quite a few people who’ve entered into some sort of self-deception that rules their lives for a time, sending their respective moral compasses or just plain sense spinning out of control for whatever reason, so I can sort of understand Nick in that light. It doesn’t mean I like him. I do have to wonder if this is Miller’s little “gotcha” to his readers.

What I didn’t find at all plausible was the letter format — way too much dialogue for a letter; way too much descriptive language. This novel would have worked much better without the author thinking he needed to resort to this literary device. And the character of “The Cossack” was a bit too over the top to be real, but then again, Miller’s lived and worked in Russia so maybe he knows someone like that guy. After reading this book, nothing would surprise me.

Overall, it’s a good read; it’s a psychological study as well as a look at a city that went a bit crazy after the Wall came down and communism went away, taking with it the safety net for some and leaving a seemingly lawless society in its wake. The plot is a bit obvious, but you will definitely find yourself turning pages to see what happens.

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Snowdrops: A Novel

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Book Review: The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair

Title: The Girl in the Garden
Author: Kamala Nair
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group
ISBN: 978-1455508709
Genre: Indian Fiction
Pages: 320 pages
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4.5/5

It is impossible to turn away from this story once begun, so be forewarned and prepared to read it in one sitting. Though this is only to feel the loneliness of missing a great friend, and to want to begin all over again. Unlike many big stories that try the reader’s patience with unnecessary details, Nair’s novel efficiently contains a multi-generational family saga, loves, deaths, secrets, ruin, and rebirth. We feel the thrill (and terror) of the heroine’s explorations in a new world, of her discovery of her mother’s devastating deception, and finally of her catharsis in learning to let judgment evolve into compassion and a return to the people and places that almost destroyed her family.

Rakhee Singh leaves a letter for her fiancee along with her engagement ring before heading off to India. The letter explains that she has been keeping secrets from him, and that she must return to India to resolve some things that happened there when she was eleven. That summer, while traveling with her mother, Rakhee is introduced to a whole new world which is much different than the life she leads in Minnesota. When she arrives in India with her mother there are a plethora of family secrets that Rakhee plans to solve. Who wrote the letters that drove her mother to make the decision to return to India? Is there really a child-eating monster hiding in the jungle behind the home of her ancestors? What she discovers will shape the person she becomes and will force her to return to her family years later to put this baggage to rest before she can marry the man she loves.

The originality and beauty of The Girl in the Garden, its wonderful strangeness, and its lifelong friendship with the reader, lie in the heroine’s narrative deftness in subtly yet wholly altering the reader’s expectations and perceptions of the two worlds of the novel. Nair sharply contrasts the whited sepulcher of Plainfield, in a Midwest as cold and colorless and alienating as its name, with Malanad, a South Indian village as warm and riotously hued and vital as the Indian myths that Rakhee’s cousins, her first real friends–particularly the bright, bold, brilliant Krishna–enact for their shy American visitor.

These stories come to signify the sheer force of living that Rakhee has been denied, and has begun to deny herself, as the neglected child of parents imprisoned within their own tragic pasts. They revive her dormant sense of self, and with keen psychological insight into how children perceive their world, Nair shows the therapeutic power of storytelling in helping Rakhee to make sense of the confusing behavior of her mother, of her mother’s family, and finally of the devastating secret they have conspired to conceal since before she was born.

Her childhood chronicle is a tone poem startling for its crescendoes of titanic discoveries and confrontations, yet written largely from the quiet wonder of a child’s daily explorations and introspections in deciphering, again, the strangeness of growing into oneself.

The magic moment, when the novel ceased to be a compelling mystery about Rakhee’s summer journey to India to discover the source of her mother’s unhappiness, and became a timeless story that has been told and will always be told, simple yet coiled in complexities vast and deep, came over me as Rakhee observes the incandescent coastline of Kerala from her airplane window. She is awed before so much that is beautiful and beyond her comprehension. Her world, our world, begins to expand to admit the history of a family that stalks softly, under the guise of this impossible beauty, as they unsheath the brutality that will destroy all their old complacencies and lies, making space, finally and gently, for resilience and reconstruction, grace and forgiveness.

For a debut, The Girl in the Garden is fairly accomplished, but that is mostly due to the last quarter of the novel. Everything leading up to the end is averagely lukewarm, predictable and uninspired, until Rakhee makes the decision to follow her head and heart instead of her relative’s orders. Her actions deeply affect the lives of her relatives and the novel becomes the dark and mysteriously lush tale it claims to be.

The Girl in the Garden is perfect for that long flight, that incessantly rainy afternoon or simply when you want to get lost in a beautifully written book that will spirit you away. Turn your phone off and disable your doorbell, because nothing can tear you away from The Girl in the Garden.

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Book Review: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

Title: By Nightfall
Author: Michael Cunningham
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-0-312-61043-2
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256 pages
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Michael Cunningham is renowned for a spare prose style that is very much in evidence in “By Nightfall”, but this book is notable for much more than its style.

As much scattered with esoteric literary and artistic references – from the “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” of Joyce’s “Ulysses” to sexual desire in Thomas Mann’s novels; Bruegel’s “Fall of Icarus” to Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” – as it is saturated with the minutiae of everyday life and emotion, and the world’s current economic climate.

The story follows the tribulations of Peter and Rebecca Harris – an art dealer and an editor – who have been married for 20-odd years. Rebecca’s troubled and much-younger brother, Ethan (aka Mizzy) comes to stay with them, and when Peter accidentally sees Mizzy naked in the shower, mistaking him for Rebecca through the steam of the bathroom, the mid-life crisis that has been niggling at him throughout the book is given an injection of sexually-led pace.

Peter’s obsession with Mizzy and his sexuality slowly build (I won’t reveal details for fear of ruining anybody’s reading) to a crescendo near the end of the book, but the real story here is three people going through crises while the world goes through its own crisis around them.

Mizzy is one of life’s wanderers: a perpetual quitter with no specific goal in life and an on-off drug habit to cope with. Now in his early 20s, the realisation of his adulthood casts him into the first real crisis of his carefree life.

Meanwhile, Rebecca’s magazine is on the edge of bankruptcy and is only able to survive by allowing a morally questionable takeover. Thrown on top of her job fears is her shaky relationship with Peter, which often leads to tense face-offs in taxis home from parties or in bed either side of sleep.

Another major thread of the book is the world recession, and how affluent people like Peter and Rebecca rarely feel sincerely guilty about living a life beyond the means of so many other Americans. Living in something of a bubble, unaffected by the recession – Peter sells a bronze urn covered in obscenities to an art collector for an unstated but no doubt obscene amount of money — the couple only really come into contact with the fears of the masses when Rebecca’s job briefly looks like it could be uncertain.

Peter occasionally remarks that he doesn’t like to look like he’s dressing to smartly, and he tries to take trains rather than cabs to see clients – not because he’s financially obliged to, but because he doesn’t want to make the wrong impression on impoverished artists whose work he wants to sell.

All of the crises bubble on as the book ends, just as the financial crisis we’re all facing in 2011 hasn’t reached a conclusion yet. Big things happen to all the main characters in this book, all of their worlds are shifted by events within the pages of the novel, but Cunningham takes Peter, Rebecca and Mizzy from us before we can see where their crisis-hit lives will lead them.

It sounds complex, and it is in a way; the relationships are carefully interwoven, but so beautifully observed and described that we are never in any doubt as to the ebb and flow of emotion between these people as they work, eat, sleep, talk and make love. If you’re looking for page-turning plot this is probably not your bag, but it’s endlessly gripping because it leads us to sympathise with these people’s hunger and yearning for something beyond the superficiality of their insulated daily routine. Yes, they’re cushioned by money, even privilege – but their lives are neither safe nor satisfying. Death and disease lurk around every corner; a friend bravely dying of breast cancer, a boy teetering on the edge of an overdose, the gnawing pain in Peter’s stomach which might be serious but serves to express his existentialist angst. Add to that Peter’s barely stated suspicion that being an art dealer is no different from being a drug dealer, that he sells fake dreams to keep the money-go-round spinning, and you have the kind of problems that we can all recognise, whatever our occupation.

One telling line is, “The worst thing you can imagine is probably the life you are living right now.” What is life for those who have everything but are (another line) “no longer the heroes” of our own lives.

An eloquent book, and one absolutely drenched in the upheaval of the early 21st century. It’s destined for university reading lists of twenty or thirty years’ time, and it’s very possibly “The Great Gatsby” of this century.

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By Nightfall: A Novel