Published: 2011 by Atlantic Books
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: “In Russia,’ Steve said, ‘there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories.’
Crime thriller isn’t a genre that would usually attract me, but like many others I was captivated by the passage quoted on the back cover:
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 in the whiteness, and murder victims hidden in the drifts by their killers.
It’s such a powerful juxtaposition; a flower more usually associated with fragile beauty and the hopeful beginnings of spring instead signifying brutality and despair. That image alone compelled me to read on. So I was rather disappointed to find that little in the rest of the novel compared to the power of its titular image. The protagonist of Snowdrops is Nick, a British lawyer living in Moscow due to the Eastern “black gold rush” of the 1990s. The novel is framed as a confession Nick is writing to his unnamed fiancée, the shameful story he must share with her before their marriage – although I was certainly left doubting that the wedding would take place after the tale had been told. There are three strands to the narrative. Nick’s professional dealings involve securing a huge bank loan for a rather shady new oil company; back in his apartment he is reluctantly drawn in to the search for a missing neighbour; while his romantic liaisons draw him into the orbit of the alluring Masha. I have to admit I could soon see where all three of these paths would lead but Miller seems to be more concerned with exploring the process of Nick’s corruption – his diminishing ambition, increasing self-delusion and spinning moral compass – than with making any shock revelations; the thrills here are of a more psychological nature than I’d first expected.
What I enjoyed most were the descriptions of Moscow. I have never been to Russia and know relatively little about the place but this novel gives a captivating impression of this vast country of contrasts: the beauty of its frost-painted landscapes and the greed and vulgarity of its newly-embraced capitalism. The same conflict is evident within Nick himself which might also explain the otherwise unconvincing depth of detail in his confession. What possessed him, I wondered at first, to describe his sexual encounters with Masha to his bride-to-be, surely he could at least spare her those details? This could just show the flimsiness of this particular choice of narrative device, but I’d like to think it’s rather a comment on Nick’s destabilised morality. The tone of his confession is regretful but more – I felt – in mourning for himself and for the exotic life he has lost than in contrition for any crimes he committed during that time.
Snowdrops is worth a read for its absorbing geographical and psychological insights but there still remains something rather soulless about this novel – that is to say something that extends beyond the obvious seediness of its characters. Masha is meant to be an enigmatic figure, of course, but at times she just seemed too much of a stereotype, an impression not helped by the predictability of the plot. One of the minor characters, the journalist, Steve, has an unsettling talent for composing snappy soundbites about Russian depravity; yet he seems to observe and record without ever allowing himself to feel. A similar criticism could be leveled at the novel as a whole. Perhaps that is intentional and just another reflection of the hollowness of these characters’ lives and the moral vacuum in which they exist but it’s not always possible to tell the dancer from the dance.