“Nothing To Believe In”: AD Miller’s “Snowdrops”

In the Guardian, Catherine Bennett has attracted some attention by accusing in rather more strident terms than many the determining shortlist factors adopted by this year’s Booker judges:

“Until they have read the full shortlist, people complaining about concerted stupidification must concede – like this column – that it cannot be asserted with certainty that the prize has made a sudden grab for Richard and Judy territory. But even without having read, for example, Snowdrops, a thriller that is also up for a Gold Dagger award, it is curious, with readers already mocking its prose on online comment boards, that this first novel should have been promoted over, say, At Last, Edward St Aubyn’s merciless – sorry, I mean enjoyable and readable – conclusion to his Melrose sequence, a decision that is the public’s loss.”

She is wise to single out Snowdrops. If Half Blood Blues might not be out of place on the Costa shortlist, or if The Sisters Brothers is a decidedly more ribald novel that might ordinarily make the cut, it would be unfair on many of this year’s sextet to denigrate them on the basis of poorly chosen words from Chris Mullin. Nevertheless, AD Miller’s debut novel is something of an issue. The story of an English lawyer making big money in Moscow’s petrochemical boom of the early noughties, it isn’t quite as simply ghettoised as Bennett suggests, but whilst it is both more internally-facing and less literally explosive than most thrillers, it is also structurally very much in the Robert Harris vein.

Is this a problem? In the sense that the genre privileges plot and pacing over character and prose, perhaps. As per China Miéville , the Booker is the award we have for a certain type of literary novel. Why, then, shortlist a book which eschews these values? Perhaps, as Bennett argues, to have a tilt at populist relevance; perhaps because those values are increasingly irrelevant and self-defeatingly narrow (thus the presence of Birch, deWitt or Kelman); but perhaps also because Snowdrops is that favourite thriller of the broadsheets, one which flatters its audience. Written by the former Moscow correspondent of  The Economist, it includes some sly-but-simplistic references to politics and finance, and in its solipsistic narrator and protagonist, Nick Platt, possesses the sort of hollowly self-reflexive voice which might persuade a reader that their airport read also has some sort of moral or spiritual sensibility.

In fact, however, we are presented with a furiously flat crime caper. Platt, an ex-pat feeling listless and without purpose in the amoral environment of a foreign land, meets a beautiful woman on a train platform and is immediately drawn into a web of lies and conspiracies which he is too naive, and too unwilling, to unravel. There is nothing new about any of that, of course, and if Miller aimed to make his focus upon Platt’s rather thin psyche add the fresh grist to this over-worked mill, he forgot to make the reader care. Nick is a curiously static character, whose final words on this book’s final page show he has learned nothing except how low he is willing and able to go given the ‘right’ (and given he is never put under any particular pressure, for this we should simply read ‘available’) circumstances.

There are various mouthpiece characters: the embittered, alcoholic journalist who says things like “Russia is like Lariam” [pg. 151]; or Nick’s neighbour, the old man Oleg Nikolaevich, who exists in the narrative to spout old Russian cliches (“God is in his heaven and the Tsar is far away” etc.), presumably to evoke an ersatz sense of place; or Nick’s boss, the Italian lawyer Paolo, who snarls, “Mr English Gentleman, you think they do things so differently in London?” [pg. 202]   There’s the casual racism and xenophobia which exist as presumably unintended consequences of the novel’s tendency to generalise in order to achieve Universal Truth: “For all their wordliness and pain,” Nick reflects, “Russians are just babies” [pg. 127]; “In Russia,” insists Steve, “there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories.” [pg. 84]

All of this is not leavened by prose which is occasionally clumsy, when it is not being adequately functional: Paolo apparently has “a picturesque burst of white hair on the side of his head” [pg. 25]; silences are “well-meaning” and central heating “inhuman”, whilst similes abound with rather too much abandon (neon signs somehow glow like “some gaudy Mongol encampment” [pg. 58]). The plot, too, is much too obvious – it’s clear that Nick is being subjected to a honey-trap, and if his obliviousness is part of the point Miller nevertheless cannot avoid the resulting lack of tension. Nick writes the book as a letter to his fiancée, to explain the sort of man he is before she marries him; the reader is left in little doubt that the big day will be called off, in no small part because they are so intensely fed up with Platt by the close of the novel.

Perhaps, though, this is a sort of achievement – Miller is under no illusions about his character, or his milieu, and doesn’t seek to charm us. The pages whip by despite the reader’s growing frustration with the company they are keeping, thanks in large part to some sharp pacing decisions. But this is a novel all about effect and craft rather than depth and thought. Is that what the Booker is for? One imagines that the answer is still ‘no’, and that Snowdrops is more a concession to some and a provocation to others  than a contender for the final prize. Ultimately, this is why its inclusion on the shortlist is such a shame.

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