Individual, corporate and social corruption in modern, post communist-era Russia is the theme of A.D.Miller’s debut novel. And, as the former Russian correspondent to The Economist, Miller would certainly know his sources.
In its straightforward narrative, Snowdrops is an enjoyable, effective psychological thriller. Now based in London, Nicholas Platt is recounting, in the form of a confessional, the last year or so of his life in Moscow to his (absent) wife-to-be. It’s a sad tale, told with shame, resignation and despair. But we never learn of his fiancee’s reaction.
An English lawyer protecting the western banks in their loans of hundreds of millions of dollars to a booming Russia, Nick is exposed to some of the worst excesses of corporate malfeasance. Corruption is rife, bribes part of the everyday – whether its landing a huge contract, negotiating a taxi ride in a snowstorm, convincing a detective to do his job or simply presenting a passport for stamping.
But, in spite of knowing, in modern day Russia, “there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories.”, Nick is delusional in believing that, at least in the beginning, his is a love story. Meeting the beautiful Masha at the onset of another Moscow winter, the lawyer fools himself into believing that this is no honey-pot scam, it’s the real thing.
As a billion-dollar scam unfolds, so Nick becomes embroiled in more personal bureaucratic machinations. Tatiana Vladimirovna is an old babushka living in a grand, central Moscow grace and favour apartment. She also happens to be Masha’s aunt who needs help in swopping the prized property for a new flat on the outskirts of the city.
Nothing is what it seems, and even when Nick realises that there’s something not quite right, his infatuation for Masha is such that he soon becomes no better than the many corrupt, hedonistic Russians he had previously judged and criticised.
None of the characters in Snowdrops are particularly empathic people. Masha and her sister, Katya, are so obviously duping the Englishman, but in his loneliness, he is oblivious to it. Nick himself is superior, judgmental and somewhat naïve – and his treatment of his mother on a five-day trip to St Petersburg and Moscow is unaccountably appalling.
But it’s the location that it the real winner in Snowdrops. Miller is adroit at describing the Moscow winter, a place so cold that a few seconds exposure can freeze a mobile phone to a hand. And while it may not offer anything new – the stereotypical henchmen and corrupt former high-ranking Soviets – it’s still an enjoyable read.
Shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize, whilst commercially the most successful of the shortlist, Miller’s first novel lost out to Julian Barnes and The Sense of an Ending.