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.