September 28, 2011
A. D. Miller held the post of Moscow correspondent for the Economist from 2004 to 2007. He’s currently an editor in the magazine’s London office and also a debut novelist. Snowdrops, an engaging story set in Moscow during the first years of the 21st century, is narrated by an impressively honest if not completely likeable English attorney, Nick Platt. These are the years of oil-boom greed and corruption, of “neon lust and frenetic sin,” and Miller evokes the culture with the unnerving accuracy of having been there.
The book’s title is Russian slang, referring to a corpse that lies hidden beneath the winter snow until the thaw. The story begins with just such a snowdrop,with Nick smelling its stench as he approaches the onlooking springtime crowd. The scene jumpstarts Nick’s confession to his fiancé about his lawyering years in Moscow, to whom he writes, “I think you have a right to know all of it. I thought it would be easier if I wrote it down. You won’t have to make an effort to put a brave face on things, and I won’t have to watch you.”
Nick’s a perceptive 38-year-old, both of himself and those he deals with in business and in love. He’s weak, though, in heeding what those perceptions tell him, choosing to ignore his instincts and hope everything will work out, as it can be made to do. In Moscow, nothing is as it appears to be, and everything can be bought for a price, even a life. Nick, adrift in his life purpose and wanting to feel he matters, slips into this unscrupulous world so easily his shame is palpable.
At the heart of his moral decline is Masha, his girlfriend and her “cousin” Katya. Nick’s obsession with the beguiling Russian beauty blinds him to his inner sense that says he’s being used. The girls ask him to assist their aunt Tatiana Vladimirovna to sell her prime Moscow apartment she’s lived in since the Soviet years for a quieter place in the suburbs. Nick draws up the papers, going along with something he knows probably isn’t on the up-and-up.
Miller writes exceptionally well about Moscow’s modern corrupt society of oil deals and fraudulent relationships of all kinds, born of the new money; of the criminal-looking taxi drivers and the blasé thuggery of businessmen; even better about the Russian winters with the mounds of snow to swerve around, sub-zero temperatures and WMD-grade chemicals taking out the ice. He carefully manages the unlikableness of Nick, balancing our compassion for his self-shame with our distaste for his discarded integrity, so we stick with him, avidly turning the pages to find out what happens with him and Masha.
A minor flaw in that avid page turning: Miller fails to adequately build tension around the crime we know is coming. Nick in his first-person viewpoint knows everything, yet isn’t giving sufficient hints or foreshadowing. So instead of being caught up in the apprehension of what might come, I kept trying to guess what Miller was doing, which creates a distance from the narrative.
I mentioned Snowdrops a few weeks back as a candidate on the Man Booker shortlist. I can now attest that it fits the “zippy” requirement of this year’s list. There’s much satisfaction in this quick read, although Nick’s lack of regret leaves a nasty after-taste at the book’s conclusion. If I were his fiancé, I’d call off the wedding.
September 21, 2011
Connie Willis is at the top of her game. She won her 11th Hugo Award last month in the category of “best novel” for her two-book time travel story Blackout/All Clear. The Hugo Awards, presented annually since 1955, are science fiction’s most prestigious awards. Normally, I wouldn’t chomp at the bit to read a sci-fi novel, even an award-winning one — I’m a reader who likes her novels to take place on planet Earth with present-day or historical elements. No Miles Vorkosigan of planet Barrayar, thank you very much. But Blackout/All Clear intrigued me with its focus on Oxford historians in 2060 traveling back in time to World War II. I thought, this may be a science fiction adventure I can get into, and that proved true. Except I’m only halfway through this fascinating two-book novel that concludes with All Clear. Willis states in the acknowledgments of Blackout, “I want to say thank you to all the people who helped me and stood by me with Blackout as it morphed from one book into two and I went slowly mad under the strain.”
In Blackout, we follow three Oxford historians performing on-site research in 1940 England. They are Polly Churchill, who observes shopgirls during the London Blitz; Michael Davies, who studies the heroes of the Dunkirk evacuation; and Merope Ward, who observes children sent to safety in the English countryside. They’re implanted with key historical information that ranges from pronouncing words correctly to knowing when and where the Germans will drop their bombs. And they’re secure in knowing they can always get back to 2060 Oxford through their drops, the time-travel portals. Should these curious historians have problems returning home, a retrieval team will fetch them.
But things don’t go as expected. Merope is detained in 1940 because of a quarantine, due to her young evacuees contracting measles. She can’t get to her portal and then, when she does, the drop won’t open. Polly discovers a similar problem with her drop in a bomb-devastated London street. Michael inadvertently gets taken to Dunkirk to help bring home the British soldiers. Dunkirk is a divergence point, a place where historians are forbidden because their presence risks changing the course of history.
This is the stuff that adds tension and mystery to Blackout, whether it be the worry about Polly, Michael and Merope getting back to their real lives in 2060 — no retrieval team showing up for any of them – or the grave possibility they’ve changed the course of history. But what’s equally inviting is the dearth of period details. They are so engaging, so intricately woven into the story, they make Blackout a delightful let alone very convincing time travel story. An advertising sign in a department store reads,”Hitler can smash our windows but he can’t match our prices.”
The story takes a while to gear up, with Polly, Michael, Merope and others dickering in Oxford over their schedules, but it’s worth the set-up time. Indeed, Willis creates the sense this is exactly what it would be like to time travel to the past, given we could, especially to London during the Blitz. Now, onto the conclusion in All Clear because, at the end of Blackout, I still don’t know the fate of Polly, Michael and Merope.
“History is now and England” is from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, specifically “Little Gidding,” the fifth stanza, and quoted in the front of Blackout.
Update: Broken links fixed 3.21.12.
September 14, 2011
Will Allison’s new novel, his second, relentlessly pierces us with uneasiness as he focuses on a lie about vehicular homicide. The page count is a slight 182, but the story is so gripping you’ll feel like you’ve spent far longer with the narrator, Glen Bauer, than the few hours it will take to reach the last page. Told from Glen’s perspective, the drama is written as a confession to his daughter, a kind of letter she can read when she’s older. Such an approach creates an intimacy with readers that brilliantly heightens the tension.
The car accident happens on a typical afternoon, after Glen, a work-at-home accountant, picks up his six-year-old daughter, Sara, at school. On their way home, Glen releases road rage by giving the finger to a police officer, only to have a mean-spirited driver in a menacing black Suburban think he’s giving it to him. There’s a verbal confrontation and threats before Glen apologizes and the two drive off. If that weren’t enough to shake up a quiet drive home, a little further down the road, a convertible Jaguar driven by a teenaged boy cuts in front of Glen so close he has to practically stand on his brake pedal to stop the car in time.
Sara observes it all from the back seat, and that includes the next incident, when the Jaguar appears again, this time speeding toward them on the shady neighborhood lane where they live. This is how Glen describes it:
“And then, instead of laying on the horn or just letting him pass, I lashed out. It was instinct, more a reaction than a decision. I cut the wheel to the left – as if I were going to turn in front of him into our driveway – then back to the right, to get out of the way. I was trying to give him a scare, slow him down, teach him a lesson. I figured at worst he’d slam on the brakes. Instead, he swerved into our lane, like he meant to squeeze past us on the other side.”
The Jaguar hits the curb and rolls, killing the young driver. And here begins a kind of narrative so taught with psychological tension it makes your skin crawl. I squirmed uncomfortably under Glen’s sheepish lies to the police, his wife, the investigating detective, the victim’s mother and her lawyer, let alone to his daughter, whom he hopes didn’t comprehend the truth of what took place.
Pretty soon Glen’s wife, Liz, realizes he’s gotten them into trouble and worries they’ll be sued. She forces Glen into a legal separation to protect their assets, tearing apart their once idyllic suburban New Jersey existence. Meanwhile, the investigating detective hounds Glen with questions, as everyone waits for the boy’s autopsy to see if he was drunk. But for us, it doesn’t matter what the autopsy says, or even if the boy’s mother doesn’t sue, because we know what Glen thought and what he did. We live with him in his fear and anxiety, his snowball of lies and his hope that normal life with Liz and Sara will return.
Long Drive Home feels too close for comfort because it’s a story about an impulsive reaction that, in a blink, destroys a blessing we all take for granted – that of being able to wake up in the morning to an ordinary day. Glen is a good family man reacting emotionally over something that, on any other day, he wouldn’t have given a second thought to. What happens to him could happen to anyone, and Will Allison has captured what it feels like in Glen’s heart and soul with pitch perfect resonance.
September 8, 2011
Several days ago, I researched the 13 novels longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. I made note of the ones I would read if they made it onto the shortlist, with the stipulation they had to be published in the U.S. Among my selections, two made it onto the shortlist, announced this week: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Snowdrops by A. D. Miller.
A majority are betting Julian Barnes will win the esteemed prize; however, surprises have already begun, with debut novelists on the short roster (Stephan Kellman and A.D. Miller) and talented author/previous Man Booker winner Alan Hollinghurst ousted. The most interesting surprise, though, is the premise for the judges’ selections for the shortlist. From The Periscope Post of the United Kingdom:
“The judges have caused controversy by claiming that they were prizing readability over any other quality. [Dame Stella] Rimington said, ‘We want people to buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them,’ on The Guardian, whilst The New Yorker’s Book Bench quoted Chris Mullin: ‘Other people said to me when they heard I was in the judging panel, “I hope you pick something readable this year.” That was such a big factor, it had to zip along.’”
Below are the six finalists the Man Booker judges deem zippy. Decide for yourself. I might caution you about Pigeon English, which indeed zips along but lacks resonance for U.S. readers. (Here’s why.) I’ve noted U.S. availability and link to the Man Booker synopsis of each novel. The winner will be announced Tuesday, October 18.
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
About a young boy on a sea adventure that involves a fabled dragon. Available now.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
A classic western set in 1850s Oregon and California, darkly comic. Available now.
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Set in 1940s Paris after the German occupation and 50 years later, focusing on the disappearance of an African American musician. Not scheduled (at this point) for publication in the U.S.
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
Told from the viewpoint of eleven-year-old Harrison Opoku, newly arrived from Ghana and living in the London projects. Available now.
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller
A psychological drama that takes place in present day Moscow. Available now.
The longlisted books I selected for my “want to read” selections that didn’t make the shortlist are Far to Go by Alison Pick, A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards and A Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst.
The Man Booker is Britain’s most prestigious book award given annually for new literary fiction. Its goal is to reward the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.
Update July 23, 2012: links that broke due to the new design of the Man Booker website have been fixed.
September 4, 2011
Early in the 20th century, France’s legendary literary publishing house, Gallimard, produced a weekly crime magazine, Détective. Its stories focused on what daily newspapers relegated to their fait divers or “miscellany” section, splashing across its pages sordid private crimes, freakish human deaths and bizarre accidents. Détective became an iconic crime magazine, a huge success. Its heyday was the only time this literary publishing house made serious profits, according to its owner, Gaston Gallimard.
Five years after the publication of its first issue in 1928, Détective covered the most sensational private crime of the French interwar years, that of Violette Nozière, an 18-year-old working-class girl who poisoned her parents on the night of August 21, 1933. Violette convinced her mother and father to drink a barbiturate-laced beverage for medicinal purposes, as prescribed by the family doctor. They believed the lie because Violette had been diagnosed with syphilis and the doctor, to protect Violette’s reputation, told her parents the disease could be inherited. Her parents passed out on a folding cot in the dining room. Violette left the two-room apartment on Rue de Madagascar to spend the rest of the night in a hotel. The next day, Violette shopped for stylish clothes she wore that night, out on the town. Her father died. Her mother survived.
The story about how this pretty teenager from a respectable family came to commit murder, as well as why the public obsessed over the crime, is the focus of Sarah Maza’s intriguing Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris. More than just a crime story, Maza’s fascinating investigation provides insight into the lives of middle- and working-class Parisians between the World Wars, whose good paying jobs and opportunities to better educate their children than ever before opened the door to elevating the social status of their future generations.
Did Violette murder her parents so she could have the bank account they diligently saved for her education and dowry? Or did she do it simply to get away from her parent’s ambitious demands? Did her father sexually abuse her, as she claimed? Did she commit the murder alone or did her boyfriend assist? And did a mysterious wealthy man fund her expensive habits? The case was fraught with complex mysteries that consumed the public’s attention, more than Hitler’s activities in Germany.
A few times, when Maza delves into the political, social and cultural history of the time period – such as the crime culture in Paris, the opinionated and personal letters written to the presiding judge from the populace, and the sympathy of Surrealists — I felt delayed from being told what happened next in Violette’s case. Even so, the analysis remained fascinating, broadening my knowledge of Paris in the 1930s.
In the end, the trial’s events came as a surprise, as did learning the French justice system still held the guillotine as possible punishment. Be assured, I’m not giving anything away here, just indicating that what goes on in the trial lacks modern-day American procedures and rights, including the right of innocence until proven guilty. The verdict and Violette’s fate give pause for thought about fair trials and a criminal’s ability to transform.