Snowdrops by A.D. Miller. Atlantic Books, 2011. Hardcover, 288 pp. ISBN13: 9781848874527.
Tell me, how was this shortlisted for the Booker again?
No, seriously – after finishing Snowdrops I’m unsure how this managed to make the shortlist, as it’s a mostly unremarkable example of “let me tell you the story of the alluring yet dangerous person I met, and how they changed my life forever”, only done badly and set in Russia.
Billed as “an intensely riveting psychological drama”, Snowdrops follows a year in the life of Nicholas Platt, an English lawyer living and working in Moscow. It’s the 1990s – Russia’s newly established corporate sector is booming, and foreign banks compete to give loans to emerging businesses. Corruption is rampant and shady deals are necessary to get nearly anything done. Our “hero” Nick witnesses a robbery at a Metro station, which introduces him to a pair of young women, sisters Masha and Katya. Though his Russian is limited, he soon finds himself drawn to Masha – in the same way a moth is drawn to a flame. Nick agrees to help the girls’ aging aunt sell her flat; meanwhile at work, he’s embroiled in a business deal with a shady figure known only as the Cossack. Right from the start, the reader knows something will unravel, as Nick narrates the tale from a future perspective and drops occasional heavy-handed hints that all is not as it seems.
Snowdrops’ first flaw is its flimsy characters. Our lead Nick is far from likeable: a stereotypical, aimless expat, searching for purpose in a foreign country, but without much effort. He’s childish, sexist, sleazy, self-absorbed, and judgmental, a grown man who looks down on his own parents. One could argue Nick’s meant to illustrate “the corrupting influence of modern Russia on a gullible Westerner”, but I’m unconvinced. As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that Nick is being set up for a scam – in both his professional life and personal life – but he is so mindless and dull that he goes along with both schemes. The love interest (or rather, the object of Nick’s obsession) is an exotic, foreign woman with a mysterious “Asiatic smile”. Aside from her exoticism, Masha’s distinguishing characteristics are (a) she’s leggy and hot, and (b) she’s willing to have sex with the protagonist. That’s about it. I guess you can’t have a female Russian character in this type of book who diverges from these traits, or who possesses – heaven forbid – an actual personality! Throughout Nick and Masha’s meandering from nightclubs to parks to other dull destinations, Masha remains cold and almost characterless. She doesn’t show she’s interested in Nick, and does little to encourage him to pursue her in any way. In short, it’s pretty evident that it wasn’t Snowdrops‘ characters that got it onto the Booker shortlist.
The second issue with Snowdrops is its narrative structure. Perhaps in an attempt to add an extra layer of intrigue to the plot, Miller has chosen to relate Nick’s tale in the form of a letter to Nick’s present-day fiancée, looking back on his time in Moscow. This is very problematic – for one thing, the fiancée is nearly nonexistent and the reader can’t get sense of who she is. Plus, the story doesn’t lend itself well to letter form: there’s too much dialogue, and I refuse to believe Nick’s commitment to telling the truth is an acceptable explanation for all the detail of threesomes with strippers, paying for prostitutes, how irresistibly sexy he found Masha, and occasional fantasies about her sister he included in the letter! By the time the book concludes, it’s impossible to grasp how on earth Nick became engaged to the unseen fiancée, let alone why he’d bother to sit down and write a lengthy confessional memo to her. The plot suffers from similar structural problems. For a story brimming with degradation and vice, there’s surprisingly little action. The full force of the scams descends upon Nick, and then…nothing. Other than his whining about how horribly deceived he feels, Nick suffers no true hardship over the choices he made. This book is meant to be a thriller, right? Yet I found neither thrills nor climax.
The final problem with Snowdrops is its depiction of Russia. Author A.D. Miller was a foreign correspondent for The Economist who lived in Russia for three years, and it shows. On the one hand, he seems particularly eager to impress his readers with how many details he managed to collect during his stay. Miller talks about the multitude of cultures one can encounter in Russia, the experience of walking through one of the gorgeous Moscow Metro stations, the particular feeling of late summer and early autumn. And while these snippets are occasionally beautiful to read, Russia feels less like a natural setting and rather like a propped background – shaped by a selective vision to resemble reality, but never truly feeling real. On the other hand, Miller seems determined to show how much of a hellhole Russia was (is). The frozen wastes, seedy clubs, and shabby flats of Moscow are evoked frequently. Corruption and bribery invade every aspect of the characters’ lives. He’s not completely wrong here – 1990s Russia was a brutal place. However, I do take issue with the overall role Russia plays in the story: Russia is a cesspit of debauchery and decay, both material and moral; a wild, dangerous country that seduces naive Westerners only to rob them of their innocence and virtue. If you’ve read my Sins of Russia writing series or Sergey Armeyskov’s pieces on stereotypes / Russia and the West, you probably know this is a trope in need of a swift death. This image problem becomes even more frustrating when one realizes that this story could be exported to any number of cities around the world and suffer little to no changes aside from setting. But I guess only the
Soviet U Russia provides that perfect blend of exoticism and danger for thrillers, eh?
In retrospect, I don’t believe Snowdrops is a worthy candidate for such a high-profile award as the Booker – or its shortlist, for that matter. Despite having bits of good prose and a few surprises, Snowdrops is a mediocre thriller with little payoff. Fans of the genre will probably come away underwhelmed, while readers interested in Russia – such as yours truly – won’t find anything enlightening or even interesting.