4 stars,  literary fiction

Review: ‘Snowdrops’ by A.D.Miller

Rating: 4 stars out of 5


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 into the whiteness, and murder victims hidden in the drifts by their killers. 

Nick has a confession. When he worked as a high-flying British lawyer in Moscow, he was seduced by Masha, an enigmatic woman who led him through her city: the electric nightclubs and intimate dachas, the human kindnesses and state-wide corruption. Yet as Nick fell for Masha, he found that he fell away from himself; he knew that she was dangerous, but life in Russia was addictive, and it was too easy to bury secrets – and corpses – in the winter snows…


The reason I actually picked this up is a bit of a strange one: my Dad bought me my copy for Christmas and called me one night to ask if I was using it.  It later transpired that my Dad’s iPad had started randomly deleting chapters of books and had hidden away Chapter 14 of this one “at a crucial time”.  After spending 15 minutes coming to the conclusion that I couldn’t fix a rogue iPad that I couldn’t see, Dad went off to email Apple.  I then decided that if it was so good that my Dad would face down Apple Customer Services to get the next chapter, it was something I wanted to read.  I started it, raced through it and had my paperback copy winging its way to him within two days.

The first thing that struck me is how the writing is so simple and direct, as a first person narrative often is. Nick is hard to like, but that’s largely the point I think, so more on that later. Masha and Katya are colourful against the white backdrop of Russia in the winter. It’s strange being introduced to them by Nick, with his introspective tone contrasting so sharply with the bright lights that he’s describing. The characters are hazily drawn and it seemed to me as though Nick is trying to paint his memories with a lack of clarity intentionally.

A downside for me was a literary device that seems to be haunting me lately. The foreshadow.  In pretty much every chapter, Nick looks back on his experiences and makes a comment to the effect of “I should have known then…” etc.  You know the type.  I’m not against it as a technique, as such, but it was most certainly over-used here. It’s apparent enough from Nick’s descriptions of the characters and their behaviour that there is something more going on than it seems.  Explicit and frequent mentions aren’t necessary and detract from the otherwise powerful message.  It happened often enough that I became irritated by it and it’s a significant part of why I haven’t rated the book any higher.  That said, even though I saw what was coming, the ending breaks my heart a little bit more each time I think about it.  It’s quiet and discreet but that only adds to the impact.  It’s worse because I don’t doubt at all that while it might not be true, it probably isn’t far off.

Behind the glitz and the glamour that the newly wealthy revel in, there’s the thinly-veiled underworld. That’s fascinating, of course, and I imagine worryingly accurate. For me, though it was Nick’s place in that underworld that intrigued me the most. Behind the oil, the post-Soviet oligarchs expanding their millions and rapid construction and development were the lawyers. Lawyers that looked back on what they had facilitated and pleaded innocence – the old “it isn’t wrong if you’re just following your client’s instructions” argument. Nick isn’t evil but he is wilfully blind, which is almost as bad in many ways.

When I was an A-level student, I wrote an essay on Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (translated into English as The Stranger or The Outsider) and whether it’s worse to be amoral or immoral.  This book brought a lot of that up, although perhaps less starkly than by Camus.  Are the entrepreneurs that ruthlessly pursue rubles at the expense of lives and truth really worse than the lawyers that close their eyes, draft contracts and arrange the finance for a couple of years before returning to the UK and pretending that they weren’t instrumental in the whole process? Because at least the “real” criminals are honest, in their way.

If you’re looking for a character study or minutiae, this probably isn’t the book for you.  But if you want a book that less about clever syntax and verbosity and more about looking at a country in turmoil, how that turmoil affected the “little guy” and how the ‘snowdrops’ ended up buried by the snow, you should be reading this.

Overall:  A compelling story that addresses a lot of moral and political issues without ever being heavy-handed.  There are flaws, admittedly, but ignore those because, really, this  is more than worth your time and I certainly recommend it if you’re looking for something that’s easy to read but hard to ponder.

Date finished:  23 February 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Gift
Genre:  Literary fiction
Published: by Atlantic Books in January 2010