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The sweet smell of danger

If this novel is ever published with a scratch-and-sniff cover — which incidentally, I think it might be successful enough to warrant — this is what it would smell of: cheap petrol, lust, the ripe, acidic scent of decaying corpse, cat litter, $2,000 suits, Cristal champagne, decaying encyclopaedia, corruption, fumes from the power plant, betrayal, sausage.

22 January 2011

12:00 AM

22 January 2011

12:00 AM

Snowdrops A.D. Miller

Atlantic Books, pp.288, 12.99

If this novel is ever published with a scratch-and-sniff cover — which incidentally, I think it might be successful enough to warrant — this is what it would smell of: cheap petrol, lust, the ripe, acidic scent of decaying corpse, cat litter, $2,000 suits, Cristal champagne, decaying encyclopaedia, corruption, fumes from the power plant, betrayal, sausage.

If this novel is ever published with a scratch-and-sniff cover — which incidentally, I think it might be successful enough to warrant — this is what it would smell of: cheap petrol, lust, the ripe, acidic scent of decaying corpse, cat litter, $2,000 suits, Cristal champagne, decaying encyclopaedia, corruption, fumes from the power plant, betrayal, sausage.


In short, a heady noseful of Moscow, an intoxicating perfume that will whirl you off your feet and set your moral compass spinning. For an expat lawyer such as the narrator, Nick, it is the whiff of opportunity, where even he has a chance with ‘premier-league women’ — not by dint of his personal charms, you understand, but because of his job, his salary, his British citizenship. At one level, Nick understands the nature of the transaction between himself and the beautiful tawny-haired Masha; when she asks to borrow $25,000 from him, he is relieved: ‘I’d always known there had to be a price, and it turned out to be only money.’

At another level, however, he eagerly accepts the cloak of self-delusion that Masha offers him. As winter approaches, concealing Moscow’s blemishes under a layer of innocent snow, Nick plays the big shot with Masha and her ‘sister’ Katya, taking them about town, revelling in the nightclubs with dwarves in tiger-skin thongs and naked girls in gold spray-paint. A perfect night spent at a dacha, broiling in the steam bath and then jumping in the snow — although the lies are starting to emerge, the sister who is not a sister, the aunt who is not an aunt — remains frozen in Nick’s memory. ‘Despite everything that happened,’ he confesses, ‘and everything I did, I still look back on that night as my happiest time, the time I would go back to if I could.’

For of course Masha’s price is not only money. When the thaw comes, all sorts of nastinesses are revealed — including the snowdrops of the title, which in Moscow slang refers to corpses that have lain buried in the snow all winter, only to be discovered in spring. Money is pouring into Russia from foreign investors, apartment prices are rocketing, and the Russians, as Nick remarks, have a tendency to ‘do the impossible thing: the thing you think they can’t do, the thing you haven’t even thought of’. The credulous and weak, whatever their nationality, are easy game.

Nick’s story takes the form of a letter to his English fiancée, an attempt to come clean about his past before ‘the big day’, as he puts it. Candid he certainly is; as his narrative unfolds, with its increasingly unflattering comparisons between the vitality and charm of the Russians who exploited him, and the ‘thin life’ that he has back in England: (‘the old university friendships that are all duty and awkwardness, the job that is killing me. You.’), he surely, almost vengefully, puts paid to any possibility of a marriage. At this level, too, A.D. Miller’s sophisticated and many-layered debut novel skewers the relationship between victim and abuser, self-delusion and corruption, love and moral freefall.


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