Two novels, two different Millers…

This post was combined and republished into my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive.

Snowdrops by A D Miller

I bought this debut novel at the beginning of the year.  It’s had a lot of interest even before it was Booker longlisted. Trying to ignore the hype, I dove in. It’s a tale of an Englishman abroad. Nick is a thirty-something lawyer working in Moscow. One day, he stops a mugger from stealing a beautiful woman’s bag in the Metro.  She is Masha, and soon they begin a relationship.  He meets Masha’s younger sister Katya, and their old aunt – everything seems to be going well between them, Masha stays over regularly and he hopes she could be ‘the one’.

Then the sisters enlist his help as a lawyer to do the conveyancing (Moscow style) on selling their aunt’s flat and moving her to a nice new one in the suburbs.  Meanwhile, in his day job, Nicholas works on the legal side of corporate finance – always a risky business in Russia. His firm is helping the banks finance a big deal for a new Arctic oil terminal being built by the ‘Cossack’.

You can sense right from the start that his home and work lives will go up the creek eventually.  This is telegraphed by the way, now back in England,  the novel is written as a confession to his new fiancée – he feels the need to come clean about what happened in Moscow that winter; after reading this, surely there will not be a future Mrs.  So why did he go to Russia in the first place?

I gave the easy answers I always did when asked that questions: ‘I wanted an adventure.’
That wasn’t really true. The reason, I can see now, is that I found myself entering the thirty-something zone of disappointment, the time when momentum and ambition start to fade and friends’ parents start to die. the time of ‘Is that all there is?’ People I knew in London who had already got married began to get divorced, and people who hadn’t adopted cats. People started running marathons or becoming Buddhists to help them get through it. For you I guess it was those dodgy evangelical seminars you once told me yuo went to a couple of times before we met. The truth is, the firm asked me if I’d go out to Moscow, just for a year, they said, maybe two. It was a short cut to a partnership, they hinted. I said yes, and ran away from London and how young I wasn’t any more.

Nikolai, as Masha calls him, is just not hard enough to survive long term in such a sleazy, corrupt and cutthroat world. He’s naive and not capable of thinking like a Russian.  His neighbour Oleg warns him. His best friend Steve, a journalist who has gone native, warns him.  He takes no notice until it’s too late.

I did enjoy this novel, but was also disappointed.  Maybe having read other books like Le Carré’s The Russia House and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, I was expecting a bit more intrigue, a bit more real jeopardy.  It all seemed a bit low rent for a ‘psychological drama’ as the blurb put it.  The real star of the book is Russia itself – from the restaurants and nightclubs to the snow filled streets and freezing weather, and everywhere oozing corruption. Will it make the Booker shortlist?  I don’t think so.  Snowdrops is a fine debut novel, but not quite special enough for me. (7.5/10)

Source: Own copy.  Snowdrops by A D Miller, Atlantic, 273 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link).

Pure by Andrew Miller

Initially I approached this book with some caution.  The only other Andrew Miller novel I’d read many years before was Ingenious Pain, and although I could see that it was a great novel, I did find it hard going at the time.  The premise of his latest though was so attractive, and by the second chapter I was hooked on this rather original historical novel.

Pure is set in 1785, shortly before the French Revolution.  Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a young Norman engineer, hired by the King’s offices to oversee the cleansing of an overfilled Parisian cemetery, that is poisoning the earth and air all around it. The Minister, safely esconced at Versailles, outlines the job …

‘It stinks.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘Some days I believe I can smell it from here.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers, but the king himself. The king and his ministers.
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘It is to be removed.’
‘Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Decent, habitable. Pure.’ ‘Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.’
‘And the … occupants, my lord?’
‘What occupants?’
‘The dead.’
‘Disposed of. Every last bone. It will require a man unafraid of a little unpleasantness. …’

Nice job eh?  Jean-Baptiste heads off into Paris, where lodgings have been set up with a local family overlooking the cemetery. He soon makes friends with Armand, the church organist, and finds that everything smells better after a brandy or two. He contacts his colleague from his last job at the mines at Valenciennes – Lecoeur will bring a team of miners to Paris to dig out the cemetery.  Jeanne, the teenaged grand-daughter of the sexton will look after the men – indeed most of them grow to love her as their own daughter.

All is set and the excavation is underway.  Some doctors arrive, including one Dr Guillotin – yes!  He is there to examine the bones, but his presence will prove necessary on many occasions over the following months – injury, illness, attempted murder, rape, suicide – everything will happen to those involved on this job. But it’s not all bad, for Jean-Baptiste will also find love in an unexpected place.

The story is entirely that of Jean Baptiste – he is present on every page.  He’s conscientious, and good to his men, but can be persuaded to let his hair down occasionally.  The young engineer is a very likeable hero and an interesting young man. In between the gruelling work to reclaim the ground from the cemetery, we do get glimpses of the bustling markets and streets around the Les Halles area of Paris where the novel is set, and even radical murmurings. The historical detail is both rich and absolutely spot on.

The major business of the novel is the job in hand though.  In this respect, (with my tongue in my cheek slightly), it is the opposite of Ken Follett’s enjoyable blockbuster novel The Pillars of the Earth, in which a cathedral is built over generations rather, than removed in a year.  In both, however, the work is the star – and it was actually fascinating to read. 

I will have to re-read Ingenious Pain and catch up on others of Miller’s backlist – I do have most of them in the TBR, as I enjoyed Pure very much indeed.  This was a brilliant historical novel with literary nous, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it as a Booker longlist contender.  [It did go on to win the Costa novel prize though – Ed]  (9/10)

Source: Review copy.    Andrew Miller, Pure, (Sceptre, 2011) hardback, 352 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

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