The ambitions of this debut novel set in Putin’s Russia are clearly signalled in the conceit of the narrator writing a confessional for his fiancée to read. None other than Tolstoy did the same. Further literary homage is paid to Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park in the opening chapter with the discovery of a snowdrop – a corpse hidden for months in the snows of the winter, revealed in the thaw of the coming spring. And from that we can gather that Nick Platt’s debauchery will involve much more than matters of personal morality.
Imagine you were the wife-to-be. Provided you could stomach the hot lusty breathlessness of the bedroom scenes with Masha and Nick’s residual love sickness, there’d be so many questions: a) was Nick corrupted during his time in Russia or was he willing to become involved in shady dealings before he even went there? b) Is he a reformed character or is simply in retreat, opting for second best, because he played with fire and lost?
Obviously Nick would like us to believe the best of him but the evidence suggests otherwise. While his story is a warts and all confessional, refreshingly honest in tone, and he seems truly sorry for his role in the betrayal of Tatiana Vladimirovna, there’s not the same sense of regret for his dodgy corporate life and its shady banking deals. Perhaps it can be argued that he was desensitised by his dubious business dealings? Perhaps. Hard to stick with that as a mitigating factor when at the point he realises that a trap is being sprung on a naive old woman he continues to play his assigned role, does not warn her, does not walk away. Why? Please refer to sentence two in the previous paragraph.
Question for a second reading: how much did he realise at the time and how much is he realising, as he claims, in hindsight? Though if I were Nick Platt’s wife-to-be a second reading would be out of the question. As would the wedding. All parallels with Sonya Tolstoy’s miserable marriage would stop right there.
Snowdrops is a pacy, if somewhat seedy, exposé of the amorality of the new Russia and the complicity of a British lawyer in a nasty property scam. The icy chill of the weather metaphorically reflects that of the hearts of the Russian con-artists and the snowdrop, as an image of repressed secrets that come back to haunt you, is an effective one. Still it is a flawed Booker shortlistee with its stereotypes, glib generalities and the occasional odd turn of phrase. How, for example, do you have a face like “a perplexed potato”? Or how can a place smell like “beer and revolution”? All of which I will forgive in a thriller and I would have no objection should Snowdrops earn itself the 2011 CWA Gold Dagger.