Believe nothing. Believe no-one. Such is the nature of post-Glasnost Russia presented in Snowdrops. To understand it, you have to scrape away the veneer it presents to the world, and look beneath the surface. To the expat lawyers, bankers and businessmen based in the country’s capital, Moscow is a city booming with new opportunities for generating wealth and having fun. Beyond the public face however, is a city of predatory nubile women and exploitative entrepreneurs. In Moscow, people vanish from their apartments and bogus financial deals are concocted but neither raise too much of a stir amongst the police (they’re too busy taking back-handers themselves).
Through the narrator Nick Platt we experience how easy it is to get caught in the city’s tentacles. The story is written in the form of a confessional letter from Platt to a woman he is about to marry. When the book opens, Platt is a late-thirty-year-old lawyer who escaped the tedium of England for Moscow. He spends his days arranging complex and dodgy oil industry deals to make new wealth-hungry class of businesspeople even more wealthy; a job he describes as “smearing lipstick on a pig”. Now he’s about to sign off on a huge deal somewhere up in Murmansk. It has catastrophe written all over it but Platt is too busy being in love to pay close attention.
The focus of his ardour is Masha. She’s young, uber-attractive and wears tight mini skirts and jeans. He sees her and her younger, more sluttish sister Katya at a Metro station. Soon they’re dancing and drinking together in tawdry themed restaurants and pole-dancing bars. It’s a relationship that the reader sees comes with big red warning lights (why would someone like her be interested in a middle of the road corporate lawyer) but Platt is oblivious to all the signs. Gradually they hook him, persuading him to put up $25,000 to help their ‘aunt’ exchange her sell her city centre apartment for one in the country.
Inevitably it goes wrong. The unstable layers of the relationship reveal themselves to Pratt as the debris buried under heaps of snow reveal themselves when the thaw sets in.
….whitish on top, creamy underneath, then a sort of stained yellow like leaked battery fluid, then a layer studded with rubbish (broken bottles and crisp packets and lonely discarded shoes, suspended in a gritty white lava) and beneath that, at the bottom, a base of sinister black slime.
It’s the idea of revelation of the hidden that gives the book its name – snowdrops apparently is a Moscow slang term for a corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in a thaw. In this novel they represent
…the badness that is already there, always there and very close, but which you somehow manage not to see. The sins the winter hides.
Platt becomes a snowdrop in essence. But only recognises this when it’s too late.
I was in too deep, had slipped too far from what I was before to what I was becoming.
And that for me was one of the flaws in the novel. Platt’s predicament is all too inevitable and his character too lightly drawn to make this a compelling read. His attempts to explain how his naivety leads him astray and to excuse his behaviour, seem rather lightly sketched to create any sense of sympathy for him.
A. D Miller’s writing has good pace and some finely crafted observations on the nature of the city. But the narrative progression had an air of predictability and the central characters almost came straight out of central casting. While I didn’t dislike it, I didn’t see anything particularly remarkable about the book. So I’m puzzled why this got onto the Man Booker prize long list this year — it doesn’t experiment with any new form of narrative or seem to say anything we haven’t already heard about modern-day Russia so what was it that the judging panel found compelling enough to select it from the hundreds of other options?
In Miler’s favour, this was his debut novel so maybe with time, he’ll just get stronger.