Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (2011) 273 p.
Snowdrops is one of the books most people were surprised to find on the longlist, including the author himself, and it was apparently even more surprising to see it shortlisted. The reason for this largely appears to be the fact that it was slotted into the “thriller” genre pigeonhole – wrongly, in my opinion. I’m finding it an interesting experience to read all the comments and reviews and hearsay about the shortlisted novels, and then notice the gap between the reality and the truth when I read the actual novels.
Snowdrops follows Nick Platte, a thirty-eight year old British lawyer who has been living and working in Moscow for several years, one of those expats who isn’t happy with his life but would be even unhappier if he went home. One summer afternoon he saves a girl named Masha and her sister Katya from a mugging in the Metro, and soon becomes Masha’s lover; however, there is a mysteriousness behind the two girls, which slowly draws Nick into a dark and dangerous tale of duplicity and corruption.
I can see why it’s considered a thriller, but my own store had it placed it general fiction (even before it was longlisted) and that’s the right decision. Miller is a far more talented writer than any of the Scandinavian hacks whose grisly titles sully our back corner. He has a knack for language, spinning a beautifully atmospheric description of Moscow, and of the terrible haze of theft and savagery and predation that hangs over post-Soviet Russia. He is particularly good at concisely capturing awkward social situations:
It could have been nice. There was no reason for it not to be nice. It was just that we’d gone our separate ways and lost each other, leaving nothing much in common but a couple of soft-focus anecdotes, featuring donkey rides and ice-cream overdoses, that you’ve heard a dozen times, plus some old irritations that flare up like a phantom itch when we get together.
So it’s not a thriller. Just because it’s psychologically disturbing and set in a snowy foreign locale and involves crime and missing people and murder, doesn’t make it a thriller.
Is it a good book? Yes, but not a great book. The climax felt like a bit of a let-down; the book is rife with foreshadowing and ominous portent, which in the end doesn’t amount to what I expected it to. It’s readable, and creates a brilliant atmosphere, and Miller clearly has more talent than the average writer – whether they’re thriller writers or general fiction writers. But in the end, Snowdrops doesn’t really do anything new or particularly memorable. That’s perfectly fine for a debut novel, but it does mean that…
…it doesn’t deserve the Booker prize, and won’t win it.