The time it takes between first arriving in a Russian city and being offered girls by somebody is a good measure of the place’s depravity. This is something you learn when you’ve been there a while. In the unscrupulous atmosphere of the early 1990s, amid economic liberalisation and dodgy mergers, where crooked-smiled Cossacks and bent bureaucrats ensure anything can be done – for a price – drifting thirtysomething London lawyer Paul falls in love with the beautiful young Masha.
AD Miller’s aptly named Snowdrops is a slow-moving crime thriller, a rough cut involving a femme fatale and a gullible hero, neither playing an unambiguous role, while the author gently reminds us that something terrible is inexorably unfolding. The narrative takes the form of a letter left by Paul for his fiancée back in London (though it reads like a straight-up book), describing a time in his life he scarcely talks about but feels the need to confess. The title itself meanwhile refers to a Russian idiom: ‘snowdrop’ is the word euphemistically used to describe the frozen, dead bodies that emerge in the spring after the deep frost thaws.
Throughout the book, Miller manages to maintain a well-handled balance between the more seedy characters and dynamic parts of the plot, which bump along nicely, and crystallised moments of calm and great sadness that emerge and rise high above the commotion - happiness almost bullet-proof in its certainty. We weave through this swirling world of temptation and quiet perversion, through vodka bars and lap-dancing joints, banal phone shops and the homely apartments of old people, in the person of Paul, feeling his dirty bulges, hearing his less than honourable half-thoughts and experiencing the more tender parts of his character. This is a person well drawn, credible – not wholly likeable but anyway interesting in his small failings and quiet, childlike wonder.
What is most refreshing about the story, though, is its understated defiant quality. At a time when too much contemporary fiction seems expected to deliver superficial messages, it is good to read something based on more acute and genuine social observation. In particular, a number of minor characters haunt your memory: the old aristocratic-like Ivan who often shuffles out to meet Paul at the top of the stairs of their block, pretending that’s just where he was all along, and calls him by a Russian version of his name. Or the sinister Cossack who reeks of violence, whose chauffeur puts a siren on the top of the car to make them seem like secret police and cleave a path through the traffic. Also appealing is the way the Cossack is ridiculously and unaccountably generous.
The long and short-term history of Russia, likewise, is comfortably and confidently handled. We hear about political violence once, in passing, since for Russians over a certain age, there is a discomfort until all know what the others went through, where they stood. Paul sees this mutual sizing up when Masha’s auntie meets a man her age; a question hangs between them until she says one word: Leningrad. He nods. That is all. There is a casual remark about how long it takes for the central heating to be turned on, despite freezing conditions. A tacit acceptance that all documents can be forged; an amusing conversation about the rising price of assassins despite slipping standards; the roomy apartments of the old aristocracy.
These last parts are light enough to work, and seems a brief nod to the tradition of irony and absurdism that pervades the work of the more popular East European writers translated in the 1980s and 1990s and others writing since, such as - respectively - Ismail Kadare or Andrey Kurkov. We hear that in the former Communist days – and we learn most older Russia generations consider themselves Communist in more or less the same way many in the UK think themselves liberals, as a kind of unacknowledged fact of life, an inherited backdrop - that people simply did a home swap, trading where they lived with another there and then. This is a queer form of nostalgia, a sense of lost hope or dream coupled with fond memories of before then, picking berries in the country, anchored in a genuine acceptance of the way things are now. This underlying experience of historical change is maybe most alien and most alluring to Western audiences.
There is also then the magical world of the dacha, out of the busy city, the small garden-like place with a cabin and sauna, the sweating naked together in the depth of winter only to come out and roll delightedly about in the snow, making angels. This captivating time he spent with Masha and her sister, the one Paul most of all remembers, perhaps the best moments of his life, acts as an admirable counter-balance to the weighty ambiguity of the world elsewhere. It conjures up a kind of adult innocence despite the casual practice of immorality, the cut-throat selfishness that has become a necessary part of life, the need to clamber over others to get anywhere, to lie, to cheat, to steal and murder.
This contrast is compelling for a number of reasons. First, it rings true. Second, it suggests a kind of redemption, albeit based in a simple, domestic truth of life. Third, it seems to suggest that way in which a person can hold conflicting parts of themselves together all at once, some parts untouched by the others and capable of such genuine depth of feeling despite their cold-hearted distance from the world.
In sum, Snowdrops does it work well and certainly earns that droll pseudo-critical accolade, a ‘recommended read’. Beyond this, however, it is a genuinely interesting piece of new fiction – and AD Miller’s first novel – which, although not without its flaws and frustrations, opens up a genuinely absorbing world where real people live. It was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, though lost out to stalwart Julian Barnes. Nevertheless, given the lack of critical backbone of the Booker of late, don’t let that put you off.