Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

Moving quickly through the next Booker longlisted title, Child 44 (2008) – 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: 

                              Precautionary Measure.

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.

19 thoughts on “Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

  1. lizzysiddal says:

    I fear the Booker judges have done Tom Rob Smith no favours in longlisting this book. The knives are out for him because of it. So I’m really pleased to see your review is a fair appraisal of the good and bad.

    Let’s remember too that “Child 44″ is an award-winning novel, having won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger earlier this year.

    Normally that alone would ensure that I rush to read it. I do enjoy a good thriller. However, I’m a bit cowardly when it comes to torture and I believe that these scenes are long and graphic. I’m not sure that I need to go there …..

  2. Stewart says:

    Over three hundred pages in and I’m really not enjoying this. I considered giving up at page three, it was so uninspiring, but have plodded on since it’s the Booker. It may be seen as snobbery, but the kind of snobbery I’m okay with, as I’m seeing little to commend in this. It’s shallow, patronising, dumb, and could easily do without the first two hundred pages. In regards to Lizzy’s comments about about torture: it’s not so much the scenes as the pages, all four-hundred-and-seventy of them. ;-)

    Let’s remember too that “Child 44? is an award-winning novel, having won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger earlier this year.

    Let’s remember, too, that the award deals with such a limited scope (“best adventure/thriller novel in the vein of James Bond”) as to be irrelevant to the world at large.

  3. John Self says:

    Interested to see your view of this Trevor, and like Lizzy I welcome your balanced view of this book. I’ve refrained from assumptions until I read it myself, but now I’m about 400 pages into it and struggling to maintain balance. I’m finding it basically terrible, and I suspect though that it’s not going to turn into something brilliant in the last 70 pages…

    Like others on the Booker site, I have no difficulty with a thriller being listed for the prize – indeed Brian Moore’s late thrillers The Colour of Blood and Lies of Silence were shortlisted in 1987 and 1990 – and I certainly think a couple of books which were overlooked this year (Patrick McGrath’s Trauma and David Park’s The Truth Commissioner) have strong enough thriller elements to warrant that tag themselves.

    The difficulty for me – and why I believe knives are out for Smith – is not that Smith has written a thriller; it’s that he’s written a formulaic thriller-by-numbers which reads as though written with an eye for the screen. It leaves nothing for the reader to bring to the book – everything is there on the page – so whereas good literature is a dialogue between writer and reader (think, Trevor, of the ideas that spark in your mind as you read Roth!), this is a monologue. It put me in mind of something like The Bourne Ultimatum (the movie, that is), where I sat there at the end thinking, Is that it? I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I don’t see the point in books like this.

  4. Lizzy, Stewart, and John – How pleased I am to have comments from three of my favorite bloggers!

    Lizzy – Smith was just as back and forth on the violence as he was on eveything else – mostly back; sometimes he gave the appearance of exercising relative restraint but at others it was actually pretty disturbing. All in all, it’s a gruesome book and given its other flaws, probably not one for anyone who avoids such things when warned.

    Stewart and John – I have to admit that writing this review was really difficult! While it sounds like the two of you suspected it from the first, I didn’t want to believe it would lapse into formula until after about 200 pages when I saw there was no hope. It was at that point that I wrote the first part of my review defending the qualities I thought I’d seen – I knew they’d be forgotten by the end of the book. And sure enough, when I finished I almost deleted everything I’d written (sorry to say, John, but I found the last 70 pages to be the worst, not even that satisfying from a thriller perspective – but you know that already). But I didn’t revise what I’d written because I thought the book was better than its last 200 pages.

    But now, especially after your insights about dialogue John, I am able to capture more of my misgivings. I was able (once again, only for 200 pages) to enjoy what I was reading because it helped me recall history lessons or books from my past – I faked a dialogue! – but that can’t be mistaken as a dialogue between reader and writer.

    Poor Smith! The thread I was hanging on to lift up some balance has broken this morning. Surely as the Booker judges reread the book they will feel the same way.

  5. lizzysiddal says:

    Trevor – thanks for the clarification. Book has been deleted from my virtual TBR.

    Stewart – at the risk of sounding heretical, the Booker is also irrelevant to the world at large. It’s doesn’t even get television coverage these days, despite the howling protests of the Booker-following masses!

  6. Lizzy, you may have pinpointed another reason I defended the book a bit more than I ordinarily would. I was surprised that only around 8000 people voted for the best of the Booker this year – that seems like a low number to me. Here in the U.S., though I now have some blogging friends, I know no one personally who follows the Booker Prize at all, let alone with as much gusto as I do. I had read some titles already, but I didn’t start following the prize until 2004 when I was living in London. I loved the energy there. A cabdriver discussed the shortlist with me (one of my favorite shortlists, 2004) and was hoping that Cloud Atlas would win – if only!

    Nothing like that has ever happened to me here even though I have read roughly forty of the titles in the last year on mass transit! So I like to cast the whole prize in as good a light as possible, even if the judges tend to pick as a winner the book I most despised. It’s still my favorite prize of them all. I’m glad to be discovering the reasons I defended Child 44, even if they aren’t entirely conscious or sound! Even though I agree that it didn’t belong on the longlist, I’m still proud that Booker is the kind of flexible prize where it could – so long as Booker doesn’t become home to titles like this.

  7. lizzysiddal says:

    Although I follow the process, the discussion forums and the blogs, chip in the discussions here and there, I only read the Booker-listed titles that interest me. Some of the discussions add titles to the TBR, others, like this, remove them. I quite enjoy the fuss and the kerfuffle but I haven’t read a Booker winner since 2002.

    If I were to name my favourite prize though, it would be the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger. I’ve read every winner. But then, it’s only been in existence for 3 years, so there’s plenty of time for that to change. And who knows what may happen the day I start reading Edgar Winners.

  8. Lizzy, I haven’t enjoyed a Booker winner, not too much anyway, since 2002, but the shortlists have been great and I still have a few winners left to read. Also, I’ve never checked out the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger Prize. With your recommendation, I will!

    John, turns out that Smith did originally conceive of Child 44 as a movie, according to its fairly upbeat review by Janet Maslin in The New York Times Book Review, though she was also disappointed by the book’s lapse into an unimaginative thriller toward the middle. Also, Richard Price is apparently already at work on the screenplay. We knew that was coming, though, from the visual setup in the first scene – we could almost see the cast’s names overlaying the cat’s footprints in the snow!

  9. lizzysiddal says:

    Well so far the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger has been won solely by French females. This year’s winner, Lorraine Connection, by Dominique Manotti is certainly more serious and meatier than Fred Vargas’s quirky winners. I’ll look forward to your comments – particularly in the light of your Child 44 review.

  10. I look forward to checking those titles out, Lizzy. And since I’m especially intrigued to know what it was about my review here that piqued your interest in my comments about these books, I’m interested to see how I get on with those books!

    Some extra thoughts on why Child 44 stuck in my mind though through no real merit of its own: As I read about the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned in a Gulag for eight years after writing a bit of criticism of Stalin in a private letter to his friend, I still think Smith’s portrayal of the system, its fear, and its justification was well wraught – for a time. It is really unfortunate that Smith chose instead to go the formulaic route, driving us towards a very unimaginative ending. Since Russia looks increasingly like it wants to bring back its totalitarian past (and The Economist reports that in an online poll Stalin is front-runner for the title of greatest Russian), even this otherwise vapid book offers a bit of insight into the horrors of the time, but if only it could have done it better, in a more nuanced, thought-provoking way!

  11. Tremendous review Trevor, really thorough and informative and I took a lot from it.

    It doesn’t sound like a natural Booker nominee, not because it’s a thriller but because of the sort of thriller it is, but that aside it sounds a bit like one might be best off waiting for the movie. It also sounds like it may have a whiff of compromise about it, to use a phrase I heard once, in that an interesting novel about Stalinism and modern echoes thereof is compromised by a perhaps over-rote adherence to formula.

    Not sure if Fred Vargas is an Edgar winner, but she’s in no way formulaic. Odd, but not formulaic. I’m actually not quite sure what I make of Fred Vargas, which I suppose is in itself something of a recommendation.

  12. Thanks for the complimentary comment, Max! And I’m glad I read this book for one thing – it’s bringing a lot of (hopefully) higher quality thrillers to my attention.

  13. redheadrambles says:

    Wow, Trevor you have sure generated a lot of interesting debate on this book. I am looking forward to reading it and adding my comments. I am about ready to tackle a good thriller.

  14. I very much look forward to your comments, Redhead! I assume this will be the most read book of the longlist this year, even though most reading it will have no idea what the Booker prize is, so your insights will be very interesting in the mix!

  15. John Self says:

    I am about ready to tackle a good thriller.

    Ah, but are you ready to tackle Child 44? ;-)

  16. Mikaele Baker says:

    I’m afraid that I must respectfully disagree with you. Child 44 is one of my favourite books, it explores life under the yoke of Stalin and provides a bleak and realistic potrayel of a world where you can trust no one and the police are the worst criminals of all. My friends and I are able to relate to Tom Rob Smith’s characters as easily as if we were gossiping about our co-workers and it seems that every time you read it you find something new. All in all, I really enjoyed Child 44 and though I can’t change your opinion I’ll gladly defend mine. :)

  17. Trevor says:

    Hi Mikaele, thanks for your comment! I haven’t thought about this book for some time, though I actually remember it quite well. Of course, I respectfully accept your dissent. In fact I tend to agree with your reasons for liking the book. The first half had some nice insights even if it was a bit overwritten for my taste. I particularly remember a passage about a snowball. I think it was three or four sentences describing someoe picking up, making, then throwing the snowball. And maybe a bit about the ball in the air. I remember thinking, couldn’t this have been said in a sentence? Or, since it was such an insignificant detail, in part of a sentence? I remember thinking hat often he would spend much longer on a thought, almost as if he had to keep reiterating it to say what he wanted rather than revising it at he end. And I have to say, the villain was an incredible flaw. I think it was Stewart somewhere who said he had the complex psychology of a Scooby Doo villain, and I have to agree.

    I wrote the above review wanting to highlight some of what was good, and it’s depiction of the Soviet system in the first was compelling to me.

    Did you find strengths in the second half, particularly in the thriller aspect?

    (I typed this on my iPhone and have no patience going through for spelling — please forgive all such errors ;). )

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