Moscow’s neon lust and frenetic sin

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.