Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller


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Nick is a lawyer originally from London, now coming up to the end of four years based in the chaos of post-Soviet Moscow where he does the legal paperwork on the highly questionable, but also highly profitable (for some), “deals” that characterized the time. His comfortable ex-pat life is about to change as a result of an incident on the Metro. He has already spotted an attractive woman on the platform (“I can at least be sure of her name. It was Maria Kovalenko, Masha to her friends.”) but it is an incident involving her as they are getting off that sets things in motion:

She was about five metres behind me, and as well as screaming she was wrestling against a thin man with a ponytail who was trying to steal her handbag (an ostentatiously fake Burberry). She was screaming for help, and the friend who had appeared alongside her — Katya, it turned out — was just screaming. To begin with I only watched, but the man drew back his fist like he was about to punch her, and I heard someone shouting from behind me as if they were going to do something about it. I stepped forward and pulled the thin man back by his collar.

So opens the first storyline of A.D. Miller’s debut novel, Snowdrops. A lonely Nick has been “introduced” to Masha and Katya; infatuation quickly follows. The conceit that supplies the format for the book is that it is being written a few years down the road, with Nick back in London, and he is writing it as a “confession” of his Moscow experience to the woman he is about to marry.

Miller has obviously read, and been impressed by, Raymond Chandler, as that “action” quote indicates. Here’s another example of how the updated descriptive voice plays out, his description of his first sight of Masha:

She was wearing 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 coat look like the honey-trap in a Cold War thriller. She had a straight bony nose, pale skin and long tawny hair, and with a bit more luck she might have been sitting beneath the gold-leaf ceiling in some hyper-priced 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.

The endpaper of Snowdrops describes it as “a riveting psychological drama”; the last two sentences in that quote offer enough presaging on where that storyline will head, so let’s move on to storyline number two. Miller was the Moscow correspondent for the Economist from 2004 to 2007 so he has substantial experience with the “free market” abuses of the time:

In those gold-rush days — when half the buildings in the centre of the city were covered in submarine-sized Rolex adverts, and apartments in Stalin’s wedding-cake skyscrapers were going for Knightsbridge prices — money in Moscow had its own particular habits. Money knew that someone in the Kremlin might decide to take it back at any moment. It didn’t relax over coffee or promenade with three-wheeled buggies in Hyde Park like London money does. Moscow money emigrated to the Cayman Islands, villas on Cap Ferrat or anywhere else that would give it a warm home and ask no questions.

The foil in this storyline is the Cossack, a deal-maker who is proposing to construct an oil shipping terminal in the form of an old tanker which will be permanently anchored offshore in the Barents Sea. Nick is acting for a bank whose financial support the Cossack is seeking for his “project”. Even without the author’s presaging, the potential pitfalls in this storyline are apparent from the start given what we know of the Russia of the time so I will go no further on that one.

Storyline number three is the “snowdrop” of the title: “1. An early-flowering bulbous plant, having a white pendant flower. 2. Moscow slang. A corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw.” That corpse is introduced in a short prologue (“I smelled it before I saw it”) so the reader is alerted that it will feature later in the book.

I am including a lot of quotes here because I think potential readers will find them useful. If the narrative style sparks your interest, you will probably like the novel. If it leaves you cold, it is probably best avoided.

Nick is one of those people who “goes with flow”, rather than acting from a set of personal principles. Given the “flow” of the Moscow of the time (which Miller obviously knows well), it is apparent from the start that none of the three storylines will turn out well. Even the “confessional” aspect of the narrative is more a series of rationales for Nick’s lack of real character than an exploration of what he might have done differently.

Snowdrops has been out for some months and many people have liked it — I am being deliberately vague because I don’t want to spoil it for those who might join that group. I found it badly wanting. The dramatic development in all three story lines is entirely predictable; it doesn’t have any of the punch or twists that characterize Chandler’s work. The narrative style attests to Miller’s journalistic background; straightforward and well-paced, but lacking any emotion or nuance. And despite the author’s experience with Moscow, there is a curious lack of depth to both his descriptions of the city and the business environment of the time.

For me, Snowdrops was a quick and not entirely unenjoyable read — like so many books on this year’s Booker longlist, “ordinary” is the term that came to mind. It certainly would not rate as one of my 13 “best books” of 2011.


16 Responses to “Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller”

  1. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Would you characterize this as one of those “thumping good reads” the Booker jury is so keen on this year? I think it sounds rather interesting, actually.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sheila: This does fit some people’s notion of “thumping good read”. For me, it was one of those novels where the premise reads a lot better than the book does. Having said that, the next time you are in an airport book shop with a four-hour flight ahead of you, pick up a copy of this instead of buying our 15th copy of Life of Pi. It will fill the time very well and you can leave the copy for the crew.


  3. Mrs.B. Says:

    I enjoyed this one but it wasn’t a perfect book. However, I think Miller achieved what he wanted. The end did leave an impact on me because of it’s sadness and I was surprised by the protagonist’s thoughts in spite of everything he experienced.

    On another note, I just finished The Sense of an Ending which definitely deserves a place on the shortlist and perhaps even deserves the grand prize. So far, I’ve only read 2 on the longlist and abandoned 3.


  4. RickP Says:

    I agree with you on this one, Kevin. I read it very quickly but not becauseI found it compelling but more because it was unchallenging and didn’t require rereading or slowly cherishing any sections.

    Positives: I found the descriptions of Moscow and environs were done well and I thought the Cossack was interesting enough.

    The core story was unimpressive. He deliberately made it predictable at a high level and dragged out the grift with the only suspense being the exact details that would emerge.

    I didn’t care for it though if I was comparing it to a typical thriller, I would think it was okay.

    I have a difficult time picturing it be submitted for Booker consideration and am very, very surprised that it long listed.

    Somewhere this has been compared to Child 44. Maybe it was on the Booker site. The thing I see in common with Child 44 is A Russian setting and my confusion at its nomination.

    I’m almost finished my third book on the list but am quite certain that this wouldn’t make my personal shortlist.


  5. Guy Savage Says:

    I hadn’t heard of this one outside of your site. While I like psychological novels, I’m not sure about this one. That’s due in part to my frequent disappointment in the depiction of Russians and Russia by non-natives I suppose.


  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mrs. B: I think if I had picked Snowdrops up sometime when I was looking for a quick, distracting read, I would have had a kinder opinion. Also, if I was judging it as a first novel, I’d have been much more positive. The problem for me was that it is Booker longlisted and it just doesn’t stand up to that given some of the excellent books that were overlooked.

    Rick: I would have liked to have seen more on the “business” storyline — Miller would know that well and I thought it was somewhat underplayed in the novel compared to the much more obvious ones. Then again, that may just be a reflection on my part that there are not very many novels written by authors who understand the business world. Miller shows that he does — in some ways, he seemed to be deliberately writing against type, if you know what I mean. I agree that there are no comparisons with Child 44 beyond the setting.

    Guy: I wouldn’t describe it as a psychological novel. The “deepest” aspect in it that I could find would be the portrayal of what happens to a morally empty character in a world that also has no morality. Unfortunately, the outcome of that hypothesis is pretty obvious — which this book does illustrate. I too prefer my Russian novels to be written by Russians but I did think several times while reading this book that Penelope Fitzgerald had taken the similar theme of the displaced Englishman in confusing Russia and done a better job in The Beginning of Spring, although that one is set in Moscow a century earlier than this one on the eve of World War I so my comparison is rather stretched.


  7. kimbofo Says:

    I saw Trevor’s review of this one, and in my comment I pointed out that I had seen this book everywhere (it was published in January) but had no inclination to read it — I like crime novels and thrillers, but this one just didn’t pique my interest. Your review has only cemented that opinion.

    Interesting that you think this year’s Booker longlist is filled with “ordinary” books. My first thought was that the judges were going for “entry-level” literary fiction (does that make sense?) or opting for populist fiction that everyone can enjoy rather than just us literature connoisseurs. It’s an admirable approach, but surely there’s enough awards out there for that type of fiction, and the Booker should set its sights much higher?


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I had the same response as you when I first saw the list: the judges had put together a longlist of populist novels (“thumping good reads” was Lee Monk’s description here) that put paid to the Booker reputation of favoring “difficult” literary novels. As you probably noted from my earlier post, by the halfway point in my reading I’d adjusted that notion to the “dog show” approach — let’s pick examples from a whole slew of different types and put them into a “best of show” competition.

    I’m midway through novel 10 now and while I still hold to a version of that mid-read theory, I’m even more confused. With a couple of exceptions (The Sense of an Ending and The Sisters Brothers for me), the list is generally very ordinary even when judged by genre. The debut novels are acceptable but no more, many of the genre ones only remind me that others have done it far better (Snowdrops is a good example of that — if you want gritty crime, read Chandler; for Moscow crime, try Gorky Park). None of the 10 are dreadful (partly because they are all very “safe” as opposed to experimental), most just are not very good. And I also would not call the list populist — if an infrequent reader who wanted a good vacation read asked me for a recommendation from this list, I’d have to say they would be better off looking elsewhere.


  9. alison Says:

    I like crime books and thrillers and so when I read the description of this book on the Booker longlist, I was intrigued (as well I should note that I lived in Eastern Europe and wrote a book about just after the Wall came down, so the setting hooked me). I ordered Snowdrops from the library and that may be its saving grace. It often takes a while for my requests to come through (usually there are many holds ahead of me) so frequently I pick up books at the library I had forgotten I had ordered. This one didn’t require a particularly long wait, but timing was such that I picked it up just before a trip.
    I would never describe this novel as a thriller, it doesn’t work the suspense hard enough to merit that, it’s a moral fable of sorts. It’s an easy read, it takes you into a world we have all read about in news reports, and I liked it for that (it portrays Russia after my time there, and so I was quite fascinated). He is good at atmosphere and at depicting an amoral scene. His characterization, as noted, is not deep and I did have trouble believing the character would act againts his knowledge for so long.
    I had completely forgotten it was a Booker longlist and so enjoyed it for what it was: an entertaining read that is perfect for a trip – if that sounds like a criticism it isn;t, there are far too many so-called airport books that aim too low. This entertains and engages, and suffers for its longlist status


  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Alison: I do think you read it in the perfect circumstances and agree with your description. We know enough about the Russia of the time that the various elements of the story make sense and Miller is a good enough writer that he keeps them in play. And, as long as expectations are not too high, he does deliver — your final sentence is one that I can fully endorse.


  11. David Says:

    I liked it a lot, and if I were to compile a list of my ’13 best reads of 2011′ which you mentioned above (although I’m not sure why I’d pick such an arbitrary sum!) then Snowdrops would definitely be up there. I reckon it’s worth a few hours of anybody’s time.


  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: I certainly did not object to reading it but I would have to say that it is one of those books that has “shrunk” rather than “expanded” as time has passed since reading it.


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