Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (2008) Hachette (2008) 438 pp
Moving quickly through the next Booker longlisted title, Child 44 — despite its page count, it’s a propulsive read — I am still pleased with my Booker experience this year, having enjoyed this and both The White Tiger and Netherland quite a bit. Of course, whether this particular title deserves its place on the longlist is in dispute, and not just because people think there are better books that were passed by. Some say that Child 44 does not offer the type of literature that Booker stands for, that, in fact, Child 44 isn’t even literature at all. Well, even if Child 44 itself is perhaps too clear and doesn’t raise many ambiguities we like to see in our Booker reads, it does raise one of the biggest questions of them all: what is literature?
As far as stories go, this one kept me in my seat speeding to know what happened next, and I don’t expect any other title on the longlist to do that in quite the same way. Beginning in the Ukraine in 1933, during one of Russia’s frequent periods of mass starvation (in fact, looking for literary ties, the beginning calls to mind the tragic circumstances under which Dostoevsky’s wife died just a few years earlier in 1918 after eating bread on a shrunken stomach — don’t worry, not all literary ties are that stretched). After the short setup where we meet two young boys hunting a cat in the dark, snowy woods, the novel skips ahead to 1953, when Stalin is at the height of his power, having established his vision of a Soviet state where all is beauty and bliss and the children can look forward to a bright future.
Of course, this bright future comes with a cost: paranoia, because to ensure this bright and secure future anything not in the party-line must be eliminated.
The book focuses on an MGB officer named Leo. The child of a fellow member of the MGB has been violently killed near the train tracks in Moscow, and Leo is sent to the family, not to investigate, not to console, but to make sure the family doesn’t raise a fuss.
The loss of a son was heartbreaking for the family and relatives. But, bluntly, it was meaningless at a national level. Careless children, unless they were careless with their tongues, were not State Security concerns.
There was no murder in the Soviet Union. It had to have been an accident. To admit that there was a murder is alleging that the State has failed in its vigilance. Worse, it means that under this enlightened system of government, these types of atrocities (so common in the depravity of the West) can still happen, which is, in essence, saying that Stalin’s Soviet system wasn’t all it was cracked up to be — which is like saying Stalin isn’t God.
But since Stalin still had the power to take away all that someone had, even beyond their life, everyone was more than willing to just accept as virtuous and infallible this system. Under Communism a declining crime rate is a certainty. Regrettably, they say, crimes can still happen in the first generation or so before every community is purged; there are plenty of “degraded folk” still tainting the Soviet society — Jews, homosexuals, the insane, Nazi’s who haven’t returned home or who have come back — but these can be and must be disposed of. In fact, murder investigations are excellent vehicles for rounding up a bunch of these unwanted elements of society and shipping them off. Still, more and more, it is better to accept that the Soviet system works, that these people have mostly been shipped out, and all remaining are good members of the Party. Leo has been a friend of the murdered boy’s father, but this allegation of murder has to be quashed for the better good.
He couldn’t allow himself to be swayed by the same feelings that were blinding Fyodor. This hysteria was putting a good family in danger. If left unchecked, the groundless chatter about murder could grow like a weed, spreading through the community, unsettling people, making them question one of the fundamental pillars of their new society:
There is no crime.
In a way the book is divided into two parts, each focusing on a particular type of fear. The first half of the book deals with paranoia brought on by the Soviet system as we watch Leo’s rise and fall. I think Smith did an excellent job here. In fact, in many ways Smith pointed out some features of the Soviet system that are alarmingly similar to some current trends, showing corrupt interrogating methods, unjust presumptions of guilt, and broad legal language meant to assist the state much more than the accused enemy of the state:
Why did that category of prisoner strike particular dread into everyone’s heart? While it was easy to comfort yourself that you would never steal or rape or murder, no one could ever be sure they weren’t guilty of anti-Soviet agitation, counterrevolutionary activity, and espionage, since no one, including Leo, could ever be sure exactly what these crimes were. In the one hundred and forty articles of the criminal code Leo had just one article to guide him, a subsection defining the political prisoner as a person who engaged in an activity intended to:
Overthrow, subvert, or weaken the Soviet Power.
This is probably the highest ground in the book for defending it as “literature.” Smith’s sly depiction of the Soviet system is intelligent and fully fleshed and serves as veiled criticism on some of the methods being used today, justified by “the greater good.” I’m not suggesting that Smith is saying that these trends are leading to a Soviet system of government in Western democracies, but his look at the justifications is eery.
The second half of the novel deals with a more visceral fear — there’s a serial killer of children on the loose in Stalin’s Russian. Unfortunately because of the paranoia — because Stalin himself is an even more dreaded murderer — no one really wants to get involved in the case. An easy explanation is much more preferable than the truth; besides allowing the police to ferret out more of the undesirable elements of society, the easy explanation supports the pillar of the Soviet system. Nevertheless, after a tragic turn of events, Leo becomes obsessed with finding the real killer. With the system working against him, Leo finds that he’s causing more problems than he’s solving.
He no longer felt the disappointment and melancholy that had racked him all week. He felt unhinged, part of a horrific, absurd charade, a player in a grotesque farce — the naïve dreamer, striving for justice but leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.
What started out as a methodical and nicely-paced look at the Soviet system becomes a much faster-paced “thriller.” It is this second part, which at times uses techniques reminiscent of the cheapest thrillers, that makes us question the longlisting of such a book.
So is this book “literature”? How does a “story” or “plot” become literature or come up short? Child 44 is definitely a thrilling story, well thought out and put together. The two halves of the book play well against each other which serves to develop some interesting and thought-provoking connections. What about a deeper theme? There are several elements running through Child 44, and many of them are developed nicely. How about characterization? I think the book really succeeds here. Most thrillers have stock characters. There’s no attempt to do more. But here, even the tragic cat at the beginning of the book is given enough of a story to make it seem real and loved. The characters are believable (except for some of their physical feats), and their internal struggles, though too often spelled out explicitly by Smith, feel real.
And then there’s style. Ahh, this is probably where this book has failed to get an inky stamp declaring it “literature.” It is often blatant and overly descriptive, and sometimes a reader can feel justified in thinking Smith just doesn’t have confidence in the reader’s ability. It’s one thing for an author to show his hand, but it’s another when the author then proceeds to explain just what he’s showing. For example:
She tried to spoon-feed him but he wouldn’t open his mouth. He didn’t trust her.
Even without the context, I suspect most people didn’t need the explanation in the second sentence. Spoon-feeding, indeed. However, to be honest, this type of “over-writing,” while not great, is, to me, preferable to another type of “over-writing”: trying to sound literary. So many books succeed in sounding poetic through all sorts of extended and ultimately overused metaphors and wispy sentences. They get plenty of reviews remarking on their “beauty.” But too often this fake beautiful writing is a smoke screen for an otherwise empty book. So while this overwriting diminished my appreciation for Child 44, it didn’t make it less than literature.
I have other problems with Smith’s formal style. In stark contrast to the not sounding like literature, there are two ways Smith attempts to make this book look like literature. First is the conscious disregard for the standard convention for designating a quotation. In Child 44 each quotation is its own paragraph, there are no quotation marks, it is in italics, and it begins with a dash. To me, used to reading italics as thoughts, this was distracting at first and still annoying by the end. The quotes sounded muffled even when they were meant to be shouting. In a book that didn’t seem to play with many other literary conventions, this stylistic choice was more than a bit out-of-place.
Second is the frequent interruption in a paragraph by inserting a small aphorism, as you’ve seen in the two block quotes above. Sometimes it worked, if not to make anything more profound then at least because it succeeded in not getting in the way. At other times, it brought too much attention to the pithy phrase and to the strange literary device, making both seem sophomoric, especially after dozens of them:
Later, as a refugee, she’d heard confirmation that their country’s army had instructions to destroy any towns and villages which might fall into German hands. The complete annihilation of her childhood home had been a:
So in Child 44 we have an interesting creature. There are the failings: much of the time Child 44 doesn’t quite sound like literature because it is too much like a conventional thriller and leaves little for the reader’s imagination; also, the book has some attempt to look like literature by forgoing some normally strict conventions with no obvious purpose. But there are also the successes: a compelling and detailed look at the Soviet system under Stalin and the lives of some of the civilians; an interesting look at what we fear; and, ultimately, the book is a great read. So here is a hybrid, part literature and part conventional thriller. And I liked it a lot more than many other books that have found their way to the Booker longlist.
But I’m still not sure it belongs on the longlist. Unfortunately, in the thrilling ending, the focus changes. By using several convention of the thriller genre — short chapters, cliffhanger chapter breaks, even a bit of unbelievable convenience — Smith focuses on the suspense and his clever plot rather than on the characters and the Soviet system that made the book interesting in the first place. Unfortunately much of the characterization that he spent the first half of the book building loses is place to allow room for the quick thrill. The suspense could still have been there, I believe, without sacrificing the integrity of the characters. This is where the book fails in my mind. And just like many otherwise lousy books are redeemed by a brilliant, thought-provoking ending, here is one that (while the ending was thrilling) fails to deliver what I so wish it had.
That doesn’t make me wish it weren’t included on the longlist. Thus we see that, though probably not in the way the author hoped, Child 44 still leaves me with quite the pleasant feeling of ambiguity and with enough food for thought that I just wrote my longest review!
On a final note: I hope that Child 44‘s inclusion on the longlist might shift what we think of when we think “literature.” And the Booker Prize, which has open though highly literary standards, is a great place for this to happen. There are few other prizes that would longlist books like this and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. There is a quality in these books that many books that just sound like literature lack. I’d like to see more of the books on this side of the “literature” spectrum making their way to the prize lists — though I still expect more from the eventual winner.