Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (2011) Doubleday (2011) 262 pp
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 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?”
“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.”