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A Snowstorm in a Paperweight
on 12 November 2011
I can understand why "Snowdrops" reached the Booker Shortlist, but also why some people think is should not have done so.
On the plus side, Miller puts his firsthand knowledge of Russia to good use by recreating the tasteless materialism and perpetual undercurrent of violence and sleaze in the raw capitalism following the collapse of Communism. He describes well how individuals are inexorably contaminated by exposure to corruption, even if they think themselves to be morally superior, or immune.
In what turns out to be a psychological drama rather than a crime thiller, the narrator Nicholas, a thirty something commercial lawyer posted from London to Moscow, builds up tension as he is gets ever more entangled with the beautiful Masha and her younger "sister" Katya. Even though he suspects they are not what they seem, he suppresses any doubts and passively goes along with them in providing legal support for what is on the surface a simple property exchange without questioning their actions.
I like the introduction to a new vocabulary: "minigarch" for a rich Russian who isn't quite in the oligarch league, "krysha" for the shady character who provides protection and "fixes" things, or "elitny" to describe a smart restaurant or club. Miller is also good on all the different kinds of snow - from the light, damp October snow called "mokri sneg", through the deep heavy snow falling overnight "like a practical joke", the mounds of snow which make walking an obstacle, and finally the end-of-May snow... by which God lets the Russians know he hasn't finished with them yet". He brings home how the weather dominates Russians' lives through the course of the almost unbearably long and cold winters and the all too short hot summers.
There are some striking descriptions of places e.g. of the Moscow river, "the ice on the river was buckling and cracking, great plates of it rubbing and jostling each other, as the water shrugged it off, a vast snake sloughing of its skin."
Likewise, the sharp descriptions of people e.g. of a man who has allowed himself to become corrupted, " He was a short, pale man with thick hair, thick Soviet glasses and worried eyes. I suppose if you wanted to you could say he looked like a sort of compressed and stunted version of me."
On the down side, I wondered whether it was advisable to tell the reader quite so often that certain characters are liars or cheats, or to imply what is about to happen. It might have been more powerful to have left the reader to deduce all this, and only have Nicholas acknowledge his own culpability at the end. As it is, the climax of the book proves underwhelming, like a balloon that fails to burst with a startling bang because so much air has leaked out of it already.
Overall, this is an impressive "first novel". Much of the writing is good, as is the basic plot idea. However it is a quick, absorbing, mildly thought-provoking and moving read rather than the shattering emotional experience it could have been.