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.