This year, for reasons not entirely clear even to myself, I’ve decided to read and review (well, react to) the six books shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize (in order of what we have the most stock of). I read a varied lot of books, from Maggie O’Farrell to J. R. Ward to China Miéville to Louise Penny. I’m coming into the shortlisted books entirely blind – as in, I’ve not read any of these authors before, and I don’t know anything about the books either (not even what it says on the back!). I like to think that this means I have a completely fresh take on all of them.
Publisher’s book description:
Snowdrops. That’s what the Russians call them – the bodies that float up into the light in the thaw. Drunks, most of them, and homeless people who just give up and lie down into the whiteness, and murder victims hidden in the drifts by their killers. Nick has a confession. When he worked as a high-flying British lawyer in Moscow, he was seduced by Masha, an enigmatic woman who led him through her city: the electric nightclubs and intimate dachas, the human kindnesses and state-wide corruption. Yet as Nick fell for Masha, he found that he fell away from himself; he knew that she was dangerous, but life in Russia was addictive, and it was too easy to bury secrets – and corpses – in the winter snows…
Fear the dark side, Nick.
Nick is a thirty-something corporate lawyer living out his pre-midlife-crisis in the Wild East that was (is?) Russia and especially Moscow a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. He is writing down the story of his time there as a kind of confession to his nameless fiancée; he feels she should know everything there is to know about the man she is to marry in a few years – warts and all. And the story is a grimy one, as Nick finds himself falling for Masha as well as involved in shady business dealings. Life in Moscow is a slippery slope, both literally (those brutal Russian winters) and figuratively (he identifies several moments throughout the story where he might have done things differently to redeem himself).
The strength of this story lies in the fact that you keep turning the pages to see what happens next. You can feel yourself liberating your morality along with Nick, without knowing quite how to have kept it. Miller writes with first-hand experience about the intoxicating life of an expat in Russia, where all boundaries fade the longer you stay, and where anything is possible provided you have the money or the connections. I really got a sense of walking around there, of the sense of the Russian people, the bitter cold of the winters. Also, his infrequent asides to his fiancée I found very insightful – here is a man, broken and battered, fully conscious now of the deplorable situations he was in then, yet still yearning for that time in a way, too. All I can say is that I sincerely hope the future Mrs. Nick does a runner!
This is A. D. Miller’s first novel, although he has written a biography called The Earl of Petticoat Lane. I found it moody and absorbing, despite the fact that Nick is not a very likeable character, overall. Then again, he lives in an alien and inhospitable world that is threatening to eat his soul. Will it win? I think that, overall, it’s a strong contender.
Next up: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch.