Review published on May 29, 2018.
This novel had quite an impact on me. I always like to learn something, and this is certainly an eye opener about the “New Russia”, but more than that I felt the emotional impact of the story. I’m aware that a lot of people think the failing of this clever novel is it’s lack of emotional engagement. However, I agree with the author, who sees his novel as a morality tale. The people in it are amoral, not the book. As readers we know that the main protagonist becomes involved in a criminal conspiracy, although he isn’t admitting that to himself. Snowdrops is a crime story based on a fraud that was replicated on a vast scale, it’s almost a generic tale.
We all know about the oligarchs; the men who raided the country’s resources and accumulated massive wealth with the collusion of the political establishment. This is a tale of the little people trampled by the system and the many ‘mini-garchs’ exploiting their vulnerability to get their hands on a piece of the new capitalist pie. Every man for himself, take or be taken. Do people do what they do to survive or are they inherently bad? There is very little nuance here. People are good at hiding their character, but they are not open to change. Mostly they are rotten inside.
Snowdrops refers to the dead washed up on the banks of the River Moskva when the thaw returns the bodies to the land. Mostly these are drunks and homeless men who have fallen in, but the iced-over river is a great place for the gangs to hide their murder victims. The authorities will never have the time or the inclination to investigate such crimes properly.
Snowdrops is narrated by Nicholas Platt, an English lawyer. Bored with the city of London and feeling his age (nearly forty), he seeks a new challenge in Moscow; a boomtown, the economic miracle of the post communist era, exotic and sexy. Also described as a “city of neon lusts and frenetic sin”. Platt is a feeble character, so I understand if people can’t take to him, I’ve never needed that connection to enjoy a book. On the Moscow subway he intervenes when a girl is being robbed and the two strike up a conversation that leads to Masha becoming his girlfriend. Nicholas Platt thinks he is in the middle of a love story. He is seduced by the two representatives of the new Russia: cold-hearted Masha and her tramp-like sister Katya, they are not tropes but they are obvious. Platt had fallen for the honey trap. He is subsequently roped into a scheme to convince babushka Tatiana to move from her central Moscow flat to a new development being built in the suburbs. Older residents of the city were granted these grace and favour properties they live in by the government (in Tatiana’s case for the service of her husband to the state). In another strand to the story, Platt’s neighbour goes missing and his flat is suddenly occupied by a stranger (see where this is going?). The price the residents are offered for their flats is a small part of the market value when discounted against the new build. Of course, the new builds are a mirage or at least a future prospect, once the contracts are signed no one cares about the old people, some become snowdrops. At some point, you decide when, Platt realises that he is being used to manipulate and cheat Tatiana out of her flat. Why would he agree to that? Masha?
Platt is also involved through his work on a massive oil project with a dubious character known as “The Cossack”. Seduced by money and sex, Platt is being lured to his own downfall. The motives of the people around him are suspect, he just a pawn in a game. Is he capable of redemption?
Its a depressing but accurate portrait of the new Russia. Miller maintains a furious pace in this intricately plotted thriller. Andrew ‘A.D.’ Miller, journalist and novelist (b. 1974), was The Economist’s Moscow correspondent 2004-2007. Surely this is where the story comes from. Short-listed for the Booker Prize, one of the rare thrillers to be so honoured, it would have made a worthy winner. Its a story of human frailty and weakness and the exploitation of the vulnerable by unscrupulous villains perpetrating a cruel fraud. A great unhappy read.
Paul Burke 5/4
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller
Atlantic Books 9781848874534 pbk Sep 2011