A.D. Miller: Snowdrops

This year’s Booker longlist is an interesting one for me, mainly because after looking into them I’m not actually interested in many of the books and find myself disappointed.  I’ve been thinking about whether that is appropriate given the fact I have now read only one of the books.  Well, it may not be fair for me to criticize the longlist without having read it, but I believe I am completely within my rights when I make a judgment on what I want to read and what I don’t, and I don’t want to read many of the titles.  Nevertheless, I want to give this year’s list a good faith effort, trusting the judges.  I’ve done that before and have certainly been pleasantly surprised, finding some great books that I otherwise wouldn’t have read.  Still, I feel like that has happened less and less.  I’m hoping this year proves the opposite, but so far not so good.  Snowdrops (2011) is a book I would not have read if it weren’t for the longlisting.  I hoped to be pleasantly surprised.  Sadly, Snowdrops, touted as a mystery/thriller but with no mystery and no thrill (which is not, for me, its failing), didn’t do it for me.

The following is the book’s epigraph:

Snowdrop: 1. An early-flowering bulbous plant, having a white pendent flower. 2. Moscow slang. A corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw.

Our narrator is a thirty-eight year old English lawyer named Nick.  He’s been in Moscow for some years assisting with the legal work behind a variety of business transactions, transactions meant to fully take advantage of Russia’s nascent capitalism as well as its persistent corruption.  When the book begins, our narrator has just weathered his last Moscow winter; Snowdrops is about that winter.  Suggesting darkness and danger in the story we’re about to hear, as the snow melts and Nick gears himself to leave Russia, Nick stumbles upon some activity surrounding the discovery of a dead man’s body in the melting snow.

Nick is telling this whole story in hindsight.  It’s been several years since he left Russia.  He is engaged, and this book is what he’s written down for this fiancé as a type of confession, though whether it’s to persuade her to marry him or to run away, it’s hard to say: “I thought it would be easier if I wrote it down.  You won’t have to make an effort to put a brave face on things, and I won’t have to watch you.”

Just before we transition to the beginning of that fateful Moscow winter, Nick (or, rather, Miller) places this line:

Snowdrops: the badness that is already there, always there and very close, but which you somehow manage not to see.  The sins the winter hides, sometimes forever.

This brings me to one of my main complaints about the book.  As good a writer as Miller is — and he is very good, which I’ll get to — strewn throughout are passages like the above that I think offer up too much explanation.  It only gets worse when what is being explained are things the author says he should have seen coming, but the reader thinks I saw that coming on page 2 — and so did you!

But before we get to that, let me offer a brief glimpse at the three main threads. 

First, as the lawyer who doesn’t want to ask too many questions, Nick is on a new job representing foreign banks as they loan money to a new oil enterprise above the arctic circle, “the kind of deal which, between you and me, made up half our revenue in those days, and which not even our sanitising covenants, undertakings, sureties, and disclosures could quite perfume.”  Nick’s main job is to draw up the documents, not do due diligence.  When the surveyor who is conscripted to do the due diligence disappears for a few days . . . well, not much mystery there, but the situation is familiar enough and interesting to those who pay attention to such things.  Sadly the book doesn’t do it justice.

Second, and this is more of a sub-thread (meant, I can only presume to give the book its mystery since the other two threads don’t have much in that vein), Nick’s old neighbor has a friend who has disappeared from his apartment.  He wants Nick to do what he can to find him.

Third, the principal story, which begins on the Metro:

She was wearing tight, tight jeans tucked into knee-high brown leather boots, and a white blouse with one more button undone than there needed to be.  Over the blouse she had one of those funny Brezhnev-era autumn coats that Russian women without much money often wear.  If you look at them closely they seem to be made out of carpet or beach towel with a cat-fur collar, but from a distance they make the girl in the coast look like the honey trap in a Cold War thriller.  She had a straight bony nose, pale skin, and long tawny hair.  With a bit more luck she might have been sitting beneath the gold-leaf ceiling in some hyperpriced restaurant called the Ducal Palace or the Hunting Lodge, eating black caviar and smiling indulgently at a nickel magnate or well-connected oil trader.  Perhaps that’s where she is now, though somehow I doubt it.

Meet Masha, as described by Nick channelling Marlowe.  It’s obvious that Nick, even engaged, is still infatuated with Masha.  

I’m about to venture into what may constitute a spoiler, but Miller puts so many clues in the narrative that I can’t help but believe what I’m about to say won’t spoil the book for anybody.  Nick, 38, expat, who is invigorated by the awful and awe-inspiring, falls in love quickly and irrationally.  Love and irrationality are his excuse for going along with what Masha and her sister / cousin / cohort Katya put him through as they get his help moving the elderly Tatiana Vladimirovna from her Moscow apartment to a new development outside the city.

I think Miller spoils this narrative thread for us, though, because not many pages go by that we don’t see some exchange like this:

I asked Katya, “How were the exams?”

“What exams?”

“Your exams at Moscow State University.”

“Yes,” she said.  “Exams.  They were excellent.”

[. . .]

“What subjects did you take, Katya?”

“Business . . . economy . . . and many more.” She smiled.  “I am very good student.”

“First in class,” said Masha, and they laughed.  I laughed too.

I found these and similar passages very frustrating.  For one thing, it felt like the author didn’t trust that the narrative could maintain tension if he wasn’t always offering clues.  For another, it’s hard to believe that Nick, as much of a fallen man he has become as he hides his sins in the winter snow, would really go along with Masha and Katya, regardless of irrational love.  It’s hard to believe in Nick.  These aren’t covered sins; they are there all over the place for all to see.  And this type of phase feels false at best: “but I’ve started to think that all along everyone knew more than me.”  He admits he probably knew what was going on the whole time, but I can’t even buy that he was wilfully keeping the truth from himself.

To put it mildly, I found each of the three threads disappointing because they didn’t feel real.  Rather, they felt like artificial constructs, based on very real events, meant to show how a man can hide what’s happening from himself.  It’s an intriguing concept; I just don’t think it was developed well at all.

That said, I think Miller is a talented writer (leaving aside the structural issues and the point-blank, overly-explained passages).  This is his debut novel, but for years he was the Moscow correspondent for The Economist, which shows.  Surely the greatest aspect of Snowdrops is the picture of Moscow in the first years after the turn of the century, that mix of the awful and the awe-inspiring (sometimes in the same moment).  This aspect makes its way into Nick’s tone and his attraction to Moscow is compelling and believable and does a much better job explaining his character than anything else in his “confession.”

14 thoughts on “A.D. Miller: Snowdrops

  1. kimbofo says:

    I’ve seen this book around for a long time — months in fact (I think it was released here in January) — but it just didn’t appeal and so I never bothered to acquire a copy. The Booker longlisting doesn’t make it any more attractive. But I do see the Kindle edition is just £1.99, so maybe it’s worth the risk?

    I wonder how much of Booker judge Stella Rimington’s previous life in the spy game (as head of M15) has played a part in selecting this particular title…?

  2. MJ says:

    Hmmmm, I’ve requested a few of the Booker long listed books from my library, but this isn’t one of them. Based on this review I don’t think it’s one I’m going to try to read.

    I’ve had mixed reviews with journalists-turned-authors. They know how to write, but it often seems that they have a hard time switching formats.

  3. Trevor says:

    Kim, I’m really not sure I’d recommend it even for £1.99. Mainly because it’s not just the money but the time spent reading it. I really don’t think it was a terrible book, but it just didn’t work for me. I think you’re on to something with the judges . . .

    MJ, I think you’re generalization about journalists-turned-authors works well here. The best parts were the parts that you’d expect a writer for The Economist to do very well. Not sure why the plotting didn’t work and why Miller felt the need to over explain, but it could be fiction growning pains.

    I should say that there are plenty of people who were very taken in by the book’s plot — “couldn’t put it down,” etc. I’m not sure I understand that, but they are many.

  4. This one is on its way and I’d have to say your review has served to lower expectations when I do get to it. I’ve noticed in comments on other forums that a couple of readers who lived in Moscow during the period find that aspect of the book to be less than convincing.

  5. Trevor says:

    Sadly, Kevin, I had low expectations and those were not met. Hopefully yours are low enough that you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

    As for whether the Moscow portions are correct or not, they are still the best part from my perspective. At least there’s feeling there and the world is created convincingly (well, to some extent).

  6. Shelley says:

    Good point. Whether it’s a book or even a TV series (I’m thinking here of West Wing and the wonderful U.K.–not U.S.!–version of Life On Mars)–it’s always inspiring when the writer trusts you to “get it” or at least get the drift of it, and doesn’t over-explain.

  7. You did me a big favor on this one, Trevor — picked it up at 10:30 this morning and just closed the last page at 3:30 (with time for a nice lunch along the way). You’d warned me on my blog about the reading time you wasted with avoidance strategies and I was determined (successfully, I must say) not to fall into that trap.

    My review won’t be up for another week or so — finding something different to say from what you did is going to be a challenge, since I agree with virtually all of it. Particularly the Marlowe reference (and there is a Graham Greene one in the book as well). All those echoes are there, but the reading time would have been far better spent with Chandler or Hammett or Greene, and they aren’t even among my favorites. As a first novel, given that I apply lower standards to first efforts, it would have got a grudging okay — as a Booker longlisted book, I am stunned.

  8. Mrs.B. says:

    I just reviewed this on my blog. I actually liked this book not as a thriller but as a morality tale. I thought the ending left a lot of food for thought. (spoiler alert) In spite of everything, Nick missed Moscow and Masha. It’s maybe hard to believe that someone would feel that way but then human beings are complex and different and Nick was obviously a weakling from page one. It’s definitely a book that can provoke a lot of discussion especially from people who liked and disliked it.

  9. Trevor says:

    Kevin, glad I could minimize the pain :). As I’m sure you’ve seen, I’ve engaged in some of the debate on the Man Booker forum about this book, and I have found some interest (if not strength) in the interpretation that Nick was couching this “confession” like some companies would couch their “disclosure.” Still, it could have been much better if subtler and if the plots weren’t so obvious from the get-go. Perhaps they needed to be obvious to get us to appreciate Nick’s moral position, but I don’t think so.

    Mrs. B, I agree that it can provoke a lot of discussion, even if I still haven’t been satisfied any element of it redeems it. Of course, it is entirely likely that I have built up an aversion to the book and will stubbornly fight against it even when others have good arguments for it.

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