Disclaimer: Uncharacteristically high salt content in this review.
Ever wanted to see what happens when an OSRLI is given her own story?
Neither did I, but that’s life for ya…
It’s finally time to tackle Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews. Red Sparrow was heaped with praise upon publication, with some critics calling it an original work to rival Le Carré’s finest.
Needless to say, I don’t share that view. This is a spy novel feature on Russia Reviewed, for crying out loud. If you’re in the mood for a fairly run-of-the-mill story glazed in forcefully “literary” writing with a sprinkle of outdated stereotypes on top, then Red Sparrow is your book. But otherwise…
Make yourself comfortable; grab some popcorn. We’ve got a lot to unpack.
In a 2010s Russia filled with darkness, longing, and propaganda, but not a single smartphone or tablet (seriously, no mention at all within 547 pages – Dimakins is president as the events of this story unfold, for chrissakes), as the Iron Curtain seemingly descends once more, one woman’s career is on the rise. Dominika Egorova, the gifted daughter of a dissident academician and a fiery accompanist, has never been abroad or spoken to foreigners. She still believes in a “bright future” for Russia, and her father is afraid to open her eyes… Dominika is a phenomenal ballerina who seems destined for the Bolshoi, but all her radiant plans come to ruin when a jealous rival breaks her foot during a test. And because there is no other possible occupation for a woman in Russia, her only option is to become a glorified prostitute spy at the Red Room Sparrow School, bankrolled by her Uncle Egorov, who himself is top brass in the security services.
But dear, sweet, totally-not-a-walking-cliché Dominika has no idea what lies in store for her during training: exploitation, violence, and torture to transform her into the perfect Russian spy. Because the best way to teach someone to love and serve the Motherland is to abuse them to the point of hating the Motherland. Go figure.
Dominika becomes the victim of profound indoctrination (she learns, for example, that all Americans are crass materialists ever-ready to denigrate the honor of Russia and Russians). But – and we see this twist coming a mile away – she falls in love with American spy Nate Nash and gets rid of everything she’s been taught. Loyalties are betrayed, secrets shared, sex had, Putin’s torso bared, blah blah blah et cetera.
Upon opening Red Sparrow, you’ll first notice its stylish language. But while prose certainly distinguishes Sparrow from standard spy novel fare (and believe me, I’m glad to see experimentation), it’s also, in editor-speak, “purple” – forced, unnatural, and overly descriptive, doing little to enhance the story. Readers likely won’t beg for a return to the somewhat utilitarian writing approach that characterizes the genre, but they might ask whether Matthews could’ve expressed the same ideas in a lot fewer words.
A quick perusal of the first chapter turns up run-ons, as well as sentences interrupted by a clause describing something completely different from the logical subject.
Nate helped MARBLE [the mole] take off his dark overcoat, turning it inside out as he pulled it off his arms, transformed into a light-colored coat of a different cut, stained and frayed at the sleeves and hem. (p. 9)
Is the subject of this sentence Nate or the coat? I’d wager the point is to convey that Nate made a disguise for MARBLE, not that he magicked himself into a lighter coat.
Here’s another line:
They walked wet-to-the-knee through the piney woods, peering through a night scope and counting paces until they came to the hollow stump and the burlap-wrapped brick, the owls in the branches congratulating them for finding the cache. (p. 25)
Something tells me those owls weren’t actually congratulating Nate and his men – more likely, they were pondering why the heck they’d been mentioned in this sentence at all.
Okay, one more:
His mind was a riptide of damage control battling the stirring of his passion for her.
The heck is this metaphor?!
And there’s no need to describe a residential street as “having apartment buildings on either side” – the term “residential” implies that in fact people do live there.
Matthews goes on to describe plateware, lighting, the fancy cologne a side character wears, furniture in rooms, an airport terminal containing shops and restaurants. But this reader would prefer that he not waste her time with research he did on trivial s**t, thanks. Now, one could avoid needless description by writing only enough to establish a strong sense of place and time, adding a flourish here and there if a scene calls for it…but it’s much more fun to pile on prose about cuisine to justify ending each chapter with a recipe – which, by the way, lacks ingredient amounts. Quite a shame, too – I desperately want to learn how to make borsch like an “old crone” running a soup kitchen in an alley “smelling of urine and vodka.”
Matthews hails from the Bell-de Villiers School of Multipage Expositional Backstories – a school which should’ve been closed long ago for its inability to produce solid characterization. As soon as a new character (even a minor one) appears, expect an infodump. To make matters worse, Matthews uses 3rd-person omniscient POV without restraint, yanking the reader back and forth between different characters’ heads on the same page, sometimes within the same paragraph or sentence. Expositing characters’ inner thoughts and motivations is supposed to demonstrate a constant battle of wits, I think. What it actually accomplishes is killing narrative tension and leaving little for the reader to discover. It’s too much, too soon.
An aside, but related: The heroine sees emotions as colors around people’s heads, and the colors are constantly described as if they mean something for the story. They don’t. In a scene where Uncle Vanya persuades Dominika to join the security services, Matthews details a halo of yellow (deceit) blooming around Vanya’s head. But readers can already tell Vanya bears ill intentions – not merely from dialogue, but from unsubtle prose that expositions the s**t out of scenes.
Overall, Sparrow’s contorted prose style points to a book that’s trying too hard to be literary. For a moment, you might think it’s succeeding, as protracted passages and metaphors occasionally approach poignancy. But then you encounter lines describing male characters as “humming with horny” or “rabbit-mad in his gluttony for Sonya’s pizda (p. 40)” and the thought that RS might be erudite vanishes faster than your interest in the turgid writing.
(You’ll notice I haven’t divulged much in the way of plot details. That’s because the plot is banal: double crosses, close calls, exotic locales, and mole-hunts. Not much in the way of logic holes [commendable!], but a few missteps and flat-out lies: for example, Dominika is not “drafted into the security services against her will”, as some editions of Sparrow claim on their back covers – she willingly agrees, and even suggests the division which she wants to join [the AVR]. And Dominika doesn’t turn traitor because of mistreatment at the hands of Sparrow School or steady disillusionment with the Russian state [either would’ve been logical] – she defects because she’s annoyed with her boss! The whole Sparrow School thing? Could’ve been tossed out without seriously impacting the plot. Moving on…)
Characterization is standard as far as spy thrillers go: an implausible protagonist surrounded by stock characters. Leading lady Dominika’s codename is “Diva”, but she’d be better off with the name Maria Surova. She’s introduced as a child-savant, later a prodigious dancer; fluent in three languages; beautiful beyond compare; possessing photographic memory; able to best trained assassins in close combat and read minds due to an ability to see emotions as colorful auras around people’s heads. Flawless in every way, except for that ages-old, certainly-not-an-afterthought weakness: “a temper.” The story bends and flows around her, with nearly every page (re)establishing how irresistibly sexy she is. And yet, for all the words spent on her, she’s extremely shallow.
Dominika has little room for character development. She comes prepackaged with all the tools of a model spy (good looks, mentalism, intensity, athleticism, manipulation skills) and all the hatred of Putin’s regime necessary to ensure eventual defection*. She’s described as having these traits even before she’s sent to Sparrow School, which undermines both her motivations for joining the Service and her reasoning for waiting so long to defect. Why does Dominika join the AVR if she already believes that the security organs and Putin are corrupt goons not acting in Russia’s best interests? How does she know what Russia’s best interests are/are not, if all she’s supposedly been fed up ‘til now is pro-Kremlin propaganda? Why doesn’t she learn, gradually, over training and maybe a few missions, that something is rotten in the state of Russia? Wouldn’t that make for a more powerful character turn?
Instead, what readers get is a heroine who goes through increasingly irritating cycles of emotion – first waffling between devotion to Russia and Putin, then hatred, later between pity for her CIA handler, then hatred. Dominika’s motivation is to continue for the sake of continuing – none of that pesky introspection here. At times she acts irrationally, unprofessionally, even childishly, and you wonder how she’s managed to avoid being offed thus far…or why you can’t just enter the story and put an end to things yourself. Save the enemy – and the reader – some time.
Side characters are afterthoughts – from the bland, forgettable Nate Nash to the kindly, wise, virtually interchangeable CIA men to Vladimir Vladimirovich himself, playing the villain from Central Casting. All Russians are monsters – more on that later.
Nate and Dominika’s romance – supposedly the story’s emotional linchpin – is yet another missed opportunity for development. While their affair has torrid sex, arguments about politics, and spy games aplenty, it lacks the chemistry, levity, and charm of genuine love. Nothing holds these two together besides sexual attraction. It’s understandable that distance would prevent Dominika and Nate from seeing each other often, but showing us even one or two moments of them holding hands in public, snuggling, or chatting about food and films would’ve fleshed them out and made their romance more believable. Heck, it even would’ve upped the stakes plotwise. Nate’s emotional turmoil would make more sense. Both leads would have more difficulty remaining professional when alone. And what if the SVR uncovered Dominika’s liaisons with Nate, and confronted her with it? Where might that have led the story?
I suppose a better question would be why I’m expending so much thought on lost alternatives.
Don’t worry, dear reader, we’re almost through. I have but two more issues to raise about Red Sparrow: stereotyping and objectification.
Going into this type of book expecting fair treatment of both the U.S. and Russia is a fool’s errand. But one would at least expect Sparrow not to sink to Patriot-esque caricature levels when describing supposedly powerful adversaries.
Check this. An American spy is capable, determined, and willing to do anything for his homeland and for the sake of his compatriots. If he makes a mistake, it’s because he didn’t know it was wrong, and only did it in a higher perspective. If his actions bring harm to others, he suffers too.
But Russian spies are ambitious and paranoid, blinded by glory, control, and a thirst for power. A rabble of thugs, scorpions, neanderthals, and “poisonous dwarves” (yes, actual descriptor) lurking in the shadows, waiting for innocents to bring under the Kremlin yoke. I bet they eat children too. And the vozhd’ himself beats an orphan behind closed doors every evening.
And of course they’re incompetent. (How has this Great Game gone on for so long?)
The only good Russians? The ones who turn against their homeland and spy for the U.S.A.
Matthews’ characters say on multiple occasions that the Cold War never ended. I guess the stereotyping never did either. There’s no middle ground. You’re either white or black. The best at what you do or utterly incompetent. You’re either good – or you’re Russian.
Red Sparrow’s political depiction of Russia itself is the usual dying bear/rusted tanks, murderous-police-state boilerplate, which oddly doesn’t mention a “disinformation machine” (again, this is set in the 2010s, YOU HAD TIME), but manages to add a few awful upgrades of its own. For it seems this time around, Putin’s Russia isn’t just like the Soviet Union, it IS the Soviet Union. Russians publish their opinions as samizdat while on the run from FSB goons (without advanced spying tech, driving beat-up lemons), or sink into morose cynicism, their will crushed by cast-iron bureaucracy. Dominika considers “denouncing” rival dancers for conspiring to break her foot (p. 42), and asks her parents if they’ve read “Putin’s article on anglo-zionism.” There’s no mention of globalism, russlish, media, celebrities, kreakly, de-offshorization, or frankly anything indicative of post-Soviet Russian life. But we do get katorga, and a journalist shot dead in an elevator.
All my criticism of RS could’ve been explained away (or reduced to “it’s a third-rate histfic thriller”) had Matthews chosen to set his story in ’50s Soviet Russia or something. The fact that he didn’t suggests to me that he believes it needs no changing – Russia is still “Stalinist” at heart.
Gotta have that eternal bogeyman! Even if it’s on tenuous factual ground, it increases book sales while attracting praise for being oh-so-relevant!
(It also drives mature reviewers to gouge out their eyes with pens. Not so good for critical acclaim, but probably still helps book sales.)
Last but not least, Sparrow has an objectification issue. The whole idea of “sexpionage” (spies specially trained to lure foreign nationals into compromising bedroom situations) is stupid, and I suspect it’s there for the author to realize his fantasies about Russian women. Dominika, despite being called The Best Spy the Program’s Ever Produced™ and possessing enough wit and mentalism to extract information effortlessly, must always resort to crude sex to get what she wants. Sparrow School doesn’t further the plot, but provides an excuse to show porn. Dominika’s beauty is mentioned frequently, in sometimes-odd places. At one point Nate and Dominika are fighting for their lives, and suddenly Nate starts admiring her butt and legs. Dominika mulls leaking details of state-sanctioned murder to the “opposition press”, and the exposition brings up her “Faberge-blue eyes and 95C bosom (p. 63)”! The heck does that have to do with anything?! Remove the sex scenes and unnecessary detail about her body and Sparrow could’ve been fifty pages shorter.
The novel often talks of Dominika’s “secret self”, which turns out to be hypersexual. If something’s nearby and male, she has to copulate with it. She has sex with a much older instructor at Sparrow School, for no other reason than she “senses” that’s what he wants from her.
Um, has this author ever interacted with a woman before? Like, a real one?
One can’t even say Dominika’s having sex because she’s empowered and wants to. Regardless of whether she’s working for the Russians or the Americans, she’s prisoner to the whims of the men around her. She has sex because she’s ordered to, or because she’s moody and has a vaguely defined “need.” But like nearly everything else in Sparrow, it’s not novel. Western men have been fantasizing about hot Russian women for decades, and Dominika is merely one more vivid fictional example.
500+ pages of novel and six pages of notes later, I still can’t determine whether reading Red Sparrow was worthwhile. Aside from almost-lucid prose and that ridiculous heroine, there’s little in Red Sparrow that hasn’t been attempted before, with much better results. It’s spy novel cliches, “insider knowledge” of tradecraft, stock characters, stereotypes, and sex, wrapped in prose which says little while convinced it’s saying a lot.
I might question the fairness of being this hard on something so clearly smelling of “first effort”, but no – I’m utterly unrepentant.
Unless you’re rabbit-mad in your gluttony for derivative spy thrillers (or just plain mad), better skip this one.
If the movie’s anything like its source material, then we’re in for some shit.
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews. Pub. 2014 by Pocket Books. Mass Market Paperback, 576 pages. ISBN13: 9781476764177.