Saturday, 10 September 2011

Booker Longlist: Snowdrops

Starkly elegant,  Snowdrops is a moral enquiry into contemporary life and how submerged we have allowed beauty (and if we are to believe Keats, truth) to become. It takes the form of a confessional: a letter to the narrator's fiancee, thus explicitly inviting the reader to judge the decline of the narrator, English lawyer, Nicholas Platt.
Platt is at once infuriatingly apathetic and inexplicably beguiling. He has arrived in Moscow, rudderless, having buried his father, to work for a law firm which specialises in advising banks to broker multinational deals. The novel then unpacks his decline, an unravelling of the moral self, as Nick abandons himself to the bewildering, sometimes terrifying, charms of the city. Menace stalks the story, and sometimes this is protested just a bit much, but the three interwoven plot lines are on the whole deftly handled, and Platt retains our sympathy even when behaving badly.
Strangely compelling, it invites comparisons with James Meeks' novel The People's Act of Love (comparisons which don't do it any favours, since that is such a magnificent novel) and also perhaps the Penguin novels by Andrey Kurkov...but Miller offers us something else here: this is not just a book about contemporary Russia. One of the corpses buried beneath the snow, waiting for the thaw to reveal its rotten decay, is Britain.
This is a novel wherein the surface gives way, is profoundly unstable and disrupts our judgement. We see what we shy away from, but we fail to recognise it for what it is. The opening scenes of the funeral for Nicholas's father should have alerted us to an anulled moral authority. If not that, then his release into playful self-gratification might have caused us to pause for thought, but actually we too are snow-blind, and thus complicit in his decline. The strategy of writing the novel as a love letter is a stroke of genius, nudging us to judge kindly, to turn a blind eye. Like putting lipstick on a pig, Snowdrops exposes the moral vacuity that occupies the space where a heart should beat. We have become so enamored of surface that even when it's wrong, if it has the right signals, we'll turn a blind eye and call it great.

No comments: