Short listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Snowdrops, journalist A.D. Miller’s fictional debut is now available in paperback. Snowdrops takes the reader for a walk on the Russian wild side, as it tells the story of an aging British ex-pat working as a lawyer in Moscow, who becomes romantically involved with a beautiful young Russian woman and her sister and eventually some peculiar financial dealings, with not unexpected results. The title in Moscow’s slang refers to the bodies buried in the winter snow that blossom in the spring thaw.
Nick Platt, the ex-pat lawyer, working for a company that represents Western corporate interests in business negotiations with Russian businesses, is both the narrator and the protagonist. He is telling the story, some years after the fact when he is back in England, to a nameless woman whom he is planning to marry in three months, presumably to clear the air before their “big day.” And while one might question the likelihood of a man giving his prospective bride some of the information Nick feels compelled to include (as for example a description of the freckles on his Russian inamorata’s backside), his confessions are straightforward and honest. His account is neither self-serving nor exculpatory. He hardly paints himself as a dashing hero. He reveals himself for the naïve romantic he is.
One day in the fall, before the harsh Russian winter sets in, Prince Charming style he manages to save two beautiful young damsels in distress from a purse snatcher. They are, it turns out, sisters. Katya, the younger, claims to be a university student; Masha, the older (she of the freckled fanny), works for a cell phone company. It doesn’t take too long for a relationship to develop. In a society where beautiful young women habitually depend on sex, legal or illegal, to make a life for themselves, it takes Nick quite a long time to question what these two might want with him. He is after all only a low level lawyer who can’t even get them into a trendy nightclub without the lucky intercession of one of his shady business associates who just happens by at the right moment. And even later when he does allow himself some second thoughts, he finds it easier simply to ignore anything that might get in the way of his fantasy.
The Russia Nick describes is a world where bribery is the rule, where even men of moderate means find ways to support their mistresses in something that resembles style, where life is so cheaply held people are routinely murdered for their apartments; it is an environment where decadence and corruption are rampant, a world where it would take a man with a very strong moral sense to avoid becoming co-opted. Nick Platt is not that man. While he may describe all the dirt around him, he can’t manage to rise above it. It may be a hell, but like any hell worth its salt, it is attractive.
This is certainly the most fascinating thing about Miller’s description of Moscow in the early part of the 21st century. For all its harsh climate and decaying infrastructure, it has an undeniable veneer of beauty. The beauty of the new snow will always cover the dirt, at least for a little while. And what is true for the city, is true for its denizens. As in another social environ famed for its decadence, “In here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the band is beautiful.” The women may be wearing cheap knock offs; but the skirts are short and the legs are long. They may be as likely to doctor your drink and steal your wallet as they are to smile their way into your bed, but that just makes them that much more exciting. Nick sees the feet of clay; like most weak human beings he finds it advantageous to ignore it.
Snowdrops is a powerful novel that is very difficult to put down. Nick’s voice is the voice of human weakness; those of us who talk a good game until it comes time to stand up and be counted, those of us who would just as soon not know the truth, and if we happen upon it accidentally would just as likely look the other way. We know the snowdrops are there. “Snowdrops: the badness that is already there, always there and very close, but which you somehow manage not to see. The sin the winter hides, sometimes forever.”