Snowdrops is a debut novel that comes garnished (OK, garnered) with praise from the UK literary “mafia” – on the cover alone are endorsements from Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jonathan Dimbleby and Julie Myerson. After all the advance publicity last year that was hard to avoid, I was slightly put off reading this novel but as it was in my local library last week I decided to try it. In sum, it is a passable read but the people who rave about it really should get out more, by which I mean “read some proper crime fiction”.
The novel is about a mid-30s lawyer, Nicholas Platt, who is based in Moscow for a couple of years to help ease through the multimillion dollar deals that typify the “new” Russia. Of course corruption is endemic but Nicholas is incurious, despite having a good friend who is a cynical journalist, and who tells him all the latest scams and fashionable crimes. The plot is two-stranded: Nicholas’s firm is acting for some banks who are lending oodles of money to some Russian companies who plan to supply oil from the north in some complicated deal that Nicholas neither understands fully or wants to – as he is only a lawyer he reckons he has no responsibility for anything dodgy. Even so, the set-up is so blindingly obvious; even I, who knows nothing about business, could have avoided the outcome of these transactions by one relatively simple action.
The more compelling plot thread involves Nicholas’s relationship with Masha and her “sister” (or possibly “cousin”) Katya. The two attractive girls meet Nicholas on the metro after he rescues them from a half-hearted attack. Nicholas falls for Masha in a big way; most of the book is about his feelings for her and the tale of their relationship as they do the rounds of various Moscow and other Russian bars, restaurants, hotels and so on. The girls have an old aunt who wants to leave her traditional Moscow apartment for a place in the country, and soon Nicholas is involved in drawing up the paperwork for the transaction.
Nicholas is unbelievably naive: we are supposed to imagine that he is so smitten with Masha that he will do anything, even though he has never seen where she lives, does not know her address and his only way of contacting her is by mobile phone. I don’t want to give away any spoilers (though we do know right from the start that everything has gone wrong somehow, as Nicholas is writing the novel as a confessional document to a subesequent, safely English, fiancee), but Nicholas’s deliberately stupid and blinkered actions mean that there is little suspense in the story, or involvement by the reader in him as a protagonist.
The book’s strength is in its depiction of Moscow (and other parts of Russia). Here, it comes to life as characters are tellingly observed, personal history and politics are woven into the narrative, and the scenes are described with clarity. The author was the Economist’s Moscow correspondent from 2004-2007, so it is not surprising that the best parts of the book are, in effect, a journalist’s observations of Russia at that time – either through Nicholas’s own perspective or via his knowledgeable friend, who obligingly provides several overviews to keep the reader up to speed.
Snowdrops is a short book which takes not much more than an hour (or two) to read, and is very easy-going, so I can say I quite enjoyed it, even though the plot itself is so weak. I did not think that readers needed to be told four separate times of the peculiarly Russian definition of “snowdrops”, particularly as I felt this part of the story was not very strong (to say why would again give away a spoiler, and for a plot so bare, there aren’t that many elements to spoil!).