Martin Amis’ prose is a distinctive combination of droll black humour mingled with near purple theatrics. It’s acerbic and heady all at once. His characters deal with situations that concern everyone: thwarted love, identity, and self-worth, but always amidst a grand setting of transition, whether that be a scene of historic atrocity such as the Holocaust, or a brain damaging, personality-changing head blow.
In his latest novel, House of Meetings, the setting takes us deep into a Soviet Gulag camp. The novel is told in epistolary flashback: an extended letter written by the narrator to his stepdaughter Venus. The narrator is, in part, aboard the Georgi Zhukov, on the Yenisei River in the Arctic Circle - a fancy cruiser near the Gulag the narrator was interned in. As his body travels around the Siberian wasteland of his old labour camp, his mind travels back in time to his imprisonment.
The reader is put in the role of the healthy American stepdaughter - an unwilling confidante and participant in the events that are conveyed through the letter. We are alluded to, winked at, and made to feel pampered, and “burnished” in the face of the dying and depraved. Venus’ name reminds us that, despite the pain and atrocities, the novel doesn’t shy from recounting; the subject of this book is love - a point made by the narrator from the first page. His unrequited love for the beautiful Zoya provides the core of this book.
Although as a character, Zoya remains a caricature — shaped like Betty Boop, and almost inarticulate next to the narrator — she provides a catalyst for the beautifully depicted love/hate relationship between the two brothers. The younger, uglier (half) brother is Lev, the poet who comes to the same labour camp, already married to Zoya.As with many other of Amis’ novels, the protagonist is far from pristine. Between self-deprecation and aggrandisement, he describes an often criminally unpleasant life, but we nevertheless come to understand him. There is an odd charm in his struggle to send off his last defining email and cope with an unopened revelation from his brother, which will finally reveal the true nature of his past to him.
Venus represents not just love, but also life, health, and the West. The narrator is Russian: corrupt and withered. His farewell isn’t only to his stepdaughter, but also to life, as he finds himself dying and is glad of it.