Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

(Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011)

A poignant tale which takes a twist on the classic crime novel. The descriptions of Moscow as a city, Moscow as a victim and its people too are surreal. A.D.Miller is able to describe in a way that does not rely on adjectives alone. The juxtaposition of what he describes and the backdrops used provide clear visions of a post-war Moscow.

The novel is narrated in the first-person almost throughout, with small snippets of direct speech to break it up. This works well in that it provides the reader with an outsider's viewpoint of Russia. Characters in this novel are described mostly through Nicholas's viewpoint. However, there is clear authorial intrusion in the way that Masha and Katya are described. Their clothing, their behaviour and their words which we get through direct speech, all indicate to the reader to take an immediate cold approach to them. The depiction of Russia, from its customs to the weather is very detailed, yet done in a subtle minimalist manner, again without the over use of adjectives. All this builds up a picture with which we are able to see strong contrasts to English culture and life in London.
As an outsider, we feel frustration at Nicholas’ lack of vision. Yet, at the same time, small actions and sentences throughout make us believe that he knows he is being taken for a fool, but he would rather withstand it is it means a life of excitement, danger and sexual satisfaction. Does Nicholas put up with it for a small price as money is disposable and it is worth the small excitement, danger and better than being alone? We get a sense of a lack of satisfaction of his life in London and Luton from what we are told about his pre-Moscow life and also from his Christmas visit back home to Luton. There is also the ambiguity of Tatiana’s innocence. How involved is she? Does she get her stake of the money and is on the scheme with the girls or is she also made a fool and left homeless on the streets? There is a strong sense of Russia and how the country’s politics have made up its people. Snowdrops not only describes the buried dead but also the lack of feeling, warmth and humanity in the country as a whole; how they have become so due to circumstance and instability – almost as a fight to survive on an autopilot mode. We are given a small sense of sympathy from the way that Masha and Katya describe the lack of opportunity and even the way that Nicholas's suggestion that Masha is less guilty due to her natural mother's instinct to protect her son. 

It is fair to say that there is a sort of anti-climax once the reader finally discovers the fate of the events that the story builds up on. As we are given an indication of ominous endings from the very beginning we await the result with baited breath and as the story reveals itself, expect the worst outcomes. As a result, the very ordinary revelation almost baffles the reader: are we being told the whole story? Paradoxically, this is the beauty of the A.D. Miller's writing. With very few words, he is able to highlight the cold nature, corruption and crime. Furthermore, the multiple narratives that encompass Nicholas's life, from his neighbour's missing friend, to the deadlings of his corporation, we are naturally expected to believe that the stories are loosely linked in some way. These anecdotes also heighten our anticipation. As a result, the effect is twofold: we question and compare between unfeeling and remoteness, morals and corruption.
Some may argue that characters are rather two-dimensional in this novel and that the prose is rather linear. I would argue that this actually highlights the writer's strength. Even though there is a lack of direct speech and just the single narrative viewpoint throughout, it is clearly more than the protagonist's viewpoint. In fact, by the reverting back to storytelling mode to his fiance, the readers is reminded that the events are told partly on reflection too. I would say that this is an extremely unique writing style to adopt, which A.D.Miller does skillfully.

Nicholas as a narrator makes it known to the reader about what a flawed character he is. This is refreshing to read not only as a storyteller but as an observer. His insights into Russian culture and society and his observations are well-balanced so that this is not too much of a shocking read.All in all, a strong contender for the 2011 Man Booker Prize and a worthy read.

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