16 October 2011

Review 44: Snowdrops by A. D. Miller (Man Booker Shortlist)

I think that my review of this novel is a cautionary tale about reading a novel with high expectations. My colleague had read and loved this book and I was looking forward to reading it, I also knew a fair bit about the setting and the plot. This unfortunately meant that I was disappointed with what is ultimately a good novel due to perhaps unrealistically high expectations. I believe that if I had read this book blind I would have enjoyed it more. Nonetheless, here is my review, tainted as it may be by it not living up to expectations.

Snowdrops is the story of Nick, an English property lawyer who has moved to Russia. The story is narrated by him as he relates what happened to him to his English fiancee, we will get to my opinions on that narrative choice later. He meets the glamorous Masha and her sister Katya who show him the high life in Moscow and also introduce him to an old lady, Tatiana, who is looking to move from her central city apartment to a more rural setting in the large Moscow suburbs. The title refers to what the Russians call a body that is discovered long after death, normally murder, due to it being hidden in the snow and ice; it is only discovered when the snow melts.

First, the positives. It is an undeniably well written story that does not patronise the reader. My colleague who loved the book lived in Russia for a year and she felt that Miller very successfully captured the feeling of living in Moscow. The icy surroundings are well captured and evocatively described. I found the story a little slow to get going but once it did, I enjoyed reading it and was keen to see what happened, although I was a little disappointed by what did.

I had perhaps three main criticisms of the book: Nick as a hero, the decision to relate the story back to his fiancee and the predictability of the plot. I have heard other people say that they liked that Nick was an everyguy and how easily he ignored the clearly dubious things that Masha tells him shows the conflict we all have between choosing to the right thing and slipping into corruption. However I just found him somewhat dull. You couldn’t root for him as he makes too many bad choices but equally you don’t particularly care about seeing him get some retribution. Miller doesn’t give us a great many details about him and I found I just didn’t really care about him or what happened to him.

I didn’t enjoy the decision to have the story told as Nick writes to his fiancee, I thought it felt like a  bit of a cheap trick and rather contrived and think the story would have been more powerful without this element. It adds the mundane into a story of icy corruption and intrigue. There seems to be no real reason for it, it doesn’t add anything to the story other than making me mildly irritated with Nick and the way he kept saying ridiculous things about feeling the need to tell her but knowing she might change her mind. It felt needlessly melodramatic. Finally, I found the plot predictable. I didn’t know the specifics, but it was clear where the story was going and what was going to happen which took all the tension out of it for me. I started getting involved in the story only to be let down by the fact that exactly what was being set up to happen, happened. There was no twist or clever reveal and the ending felt very anticlimatic.

Despite a lot of criticism in this review, the book is a good read and makes me want to visit Russia. It was a bit different to what I normally read which I enjoyed and it is definitely readable and well written from a linguistic point of view. For me it’s a good book but not one that I would put on a shortlist celebrating the best of current English literature. 

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