Tarbuckle's Reviews > Snowdrops. A.D. Miller

Snowdrops. A.D. Miller by A.D. Miller
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Aug 22, 2012

It's perhaps a little surprising to discover that Snowdrops was short-listed for the Booker Prize when perusing the cover material, for its content seemingly proffers but another round of edgy, Anglo-angled mystery, carved out of an exotic environment in order to give it some tang. The locale—the wintry expansiveness of the modern Russian state, a behemoth wherein, from what little details leak out to the West, criminals and politicians are separated only by the pretense of popular elections, pretty much anything goes, and life under untamed capitalism differs only in kind, not in soul-crushing affliction, from its communist predecessor—hold all kinds of promise for a tale of nasty grifts and nubile love, but it would seem to require quite a working through in order for such Euro-Asiatic shadowplay to make it unto the highest literary rung of the Commonwealth. Thus it was that for the first forty or fifty pages I waited, rather expectantly, for Miller to prove his limitations by banal prose or limp characterizations or clichéd maneuvering; and it was only when I'd ingested about a quarter of the story that it dawned upon me that not only was I enjoying the thing, not merely being held wrapt by the stickiness of its text-spun webs, but that the author, in his rookie effort, had stitched the entirety together with a succinct, lyrically-limned voice that proved quite agreeable to the condensed events that it was depicting.

The narrator of Snowdrops, an expatriate English lawyer named Nick Platt whose lack of moral fiber and unyielding backbone announced him as the perfect candidate for a Moscow transfer, has composed this episodical look into a Russian-bound period of his life as a confessional letter to his fiancée; and in uncompromising tones the ugliness of what is to ensue is made clear from the very start. While many of Nick's actions within, as he describes them, might paint him in the light of a rather decent, if self-aware, county shire chap, his expository voice continuously countermands that picture and announces, without halt, that everything touched will—by virtue of his lack of such—eventually turn to shit. Even the central conceit, that of his brief spell of burgeoning love for a lithe Russian lynx, Masha—a mysterious beauty whose equally attractive younger sister, Katya, travels with her like shapely luggage—betrays its doomed state within the rueful pining he evinces for her sensual, but evasive, charms. And the one decent, touching relationship he manages to attain to—with the octogenarian Tatiana Vladimirovna, aunt to the aforementioned girls, survivor of all the myriad horrors of the twentieth-century, a tough but kindly figure who comes to place a considerable amount of trust in the nigh middled-aged expat lawyer—leads to the most devastating, but ultimately forseeable, of careless abandonment. Nick is not a nice man, when you get right down to it, and though he finds himself buffeted by an array of Russians who are even less nice than he, it is difficult, by dint of his many admitted failures, to come to view him in aught but a hard light.

Such shady plot-play has, of course, been done before, but Snowdrops is competently and pleasingly crafted, and all of the touches, though apparently outrageous to a bevy of other reviewers, do in fact support what is being unfolded; indeed, the obliqueness Nick displays to what, by any measure, should have been glaringly obvious can be easily reconciled to the exact character—weak but wishful, desperate for solidity, superficially decent but vacillating and selfish at its core—the author voluntarily and bleakly reveals himself to possess. Miller's knowledge of Russia is impressive and carries the ring of truth, especially the myriad ways he works the nature of the frigidity, the snow, the ice, the perdurability of the Russian winter into the events being described. This is a Russia humming with energy, explosive with potential, and yet making so many wrong choices, allowing all the money and power to be amassed by the wrong people—and forcing desperate citizens, lacking any means otherwise, to engage in particularly cold and brutal schemes in order to ensure some future for themselves and their kin. It's fairly raw, considerably realistic, and, in the end, satisfying in its most unsatisfying of resolutions. Nick has been exposed to much in his relatively brief stay; it is not at all apparent that he has learned anything from it but a more concentrated, more widely-spread cynicism. Perhaps that is what Russia, in its enigmatically anarchic modern constitution, produces best of all.

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