Review: Snowdrops

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September 13, 2011 by markstani

I’m not sure ‘Snowdrops’ can win the Man Booker Prize. It’s macho, arguably a little voyeuristic, and has even been accused (harshly) of racism. This sort of thing doesn’t win highbrow literary prizes, not since Vernon God Little at any rate, and the Booker has suffered (wrongly) for that ever since. No, I reckon ‘Snowdrops’ may be doomed to long- or short-list purgatory. Which would be a shame, because I think it’s brilliant.
‘Snowdrops’ is about an English lawyer, Nick Platt, whose (supposedly) chance meeting with (supposed) sisters Masha and Katya on the Moscow tube soon sees him embroiled in a scheme to help a friendly old babushka swap her highly prized city centre apartment for a place in the country. Meanwhile, in a second plot strand which intertwines morally, if not materially, he’s helping facilitate the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars to a shady character simply known as ‘The Cossack’, ostensibly for an oil pipeline in the Arctic north.
Miller’s great strength is the way he captures the chaos and lawlessness of modern, newly minted Moscow. His raw, terse prose boots winners from the start: the city, we learn, ‘smelled of cheap petrol, grilled meat and lust.’ The gangsters’ fortified hummers ‘congregated around the must-be-seen-in restaurants and nightclubs like basking predators at watering holes’.
Platt is a typical cynical expat, and so a broadly unsympathetic character. As the plot develops through the suicidal chill of a Moscow winter, it becomes clear he is allowing his lust for Masha to blot out his doubts. Initially, that naivety or wilful ignorance seems a little hard to believe: at one point, Nick doesn’t even question Masha after the babushka asks him, out of the blue, ‘what do you think about our little scheme?’ But then Masha looms, slipping out of bikini bottoms or unfolding naked in the banya, her voice sounding ‘like it had been through an all-night party. Or a war’, and it becomes obvious again why Platt, to all intents and purpose a lonely thirtysomething, is keen to grasp hold of his exhilarating, unexpected new life.

(Let’s take a break here, and run down the top three most ostentatious moments in the book):

1. Three girls in red army fur hats marched around the tables, carrying replica machine guns (at least I think they were replicas) and wearing bullet bandoliers, draped carefully around their curves so that they covered nothing up. There was a lot of silicone and very little body hair

2. Inside there was a dance floor with three podium dancers – two energetic and topless black girls, and in between them a male dwarf wearing a tiger stripe thong. Katya pointed up to the ceiling. Two naked girls, sprayed with gold to look like cherubs and with wings attached, were flapping above our heads.

3. The vodka bottle was shaped like a Kalashnikov. The Cossack picked it up by the butt and poured four large shots. When he held my glass out towards me I saw that his cufflinks were miniature dollar bills.

Miller adopts the ingenious narrative conceit of framing the book as a confessional letter to his girlfriend in England – we assume his fiance; a desire to wash Moscow from his system before he can return to normal life back home. It works brilliantly, evoking sympathy for Nick and lending him emotion where otherwise there may have been none. As the story nears its sexy, gut-wrenching conclusion, you” find yourself starting to cheer him on against your better judgement; perhaps because you, like him, want more.
It’s unashamedly macho. It’s voyeuristic: ‘they were wheeling knock-off Louis Vuitton cabin luggage, wearing film-star sunglasses, willing smiles, and, I was almost sure, no knickers’ – and (according to one review) mildly racist – ‘[Russians] could wallow in mud and vodka for a decade, then conjure up a skyscraper or execute a royal family in an afternoon.’ Perhaps it embellishes stereotypes, and the narrative can occasionally get clumsy: spring-time Moscow, we are led to believe, smells like ‘beer and revolution.’They’re small faults. You’ll forget them long before you forget Masha. She’ll flit round your mind, teasing your conscience for some time to come. You only hope she can do the same with the Booker judges, because that might be the only way this superb book – also nominated, incidentally, for the Crime Writers’ Golden Dagger – will get what it deserves.

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