Tag Archives: Snowdrops

Back to Moscow by Guillermo Erades: The story of a 21st-century superfluous man

Cover imageBack to Moscow came all wrapped up in orange ribbon along with a couple of other titles, one of which I had my eye on already thanks to Twitter. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s set in Moscow, back at the beginning of the century when the city was stuffed full of expats with their eye on the main chance. Inevitably there’s a mention of A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops in the press release but this isn’t a thriller – it’s the story of a young man, studying for a PhD in Russian literature more because of happenstance than any burning desire, and the things he gets up to. A kind of Rake’s Progress, if you like. It’s also an atmospheric portrait of a city in the midst of transforming itself.

The novel opens in 1999. Martin has left Amsterdam, thrown out by his Russian girlfriend, and has found himself a scholarship to fund his doctorate on Chekov. He’s a little disconsolate. It’s been a lonely two weeks at the beginning of term but when he meets Colin and Diego in the student canteen the party begins. There’s always a party in Moscow if you’re an expat, so it seems, always a beautiful woman to take home for the night looking for opportunities. Martin and his ‘brothers’ are having the time of their lives, constantly on the razzle. Very little in the way of studying gets done, particularly when Martin picks up a lucrative part-time job with a Russian friend, posing as a Western businessman at his friend’s many meetings striking deals for this and that. Martin entertains an endless stream of ‘dyevs’ each one more gorgeous than the last, finding a way of working them into his ‘research’ and dallying with the idea of love with Lena but when he meets Tatyana it seems it may be time for him to grow up.

Martin is looking back on his time in Moscow and we know from the start that things won’t end well; hardly surprising for a novel steeped in Russian literature where happy endings are at a premium. Each section of the book begins with a short, snappy exposition of a book from the canon illustrating the national temperament – the ‘Mysterious Russian Soul’ as so many Russians Martin meets call it. Time and time again he’s told that life’s not all about the pursuit of happiness which he and his friends have immersed themselves in. Erades vividly evokes a city awash with people on the make while others look on in dismay, charting the changes from the invasion of expats – welcomed everywhere with open arms – to the rise of the oligarchs, Putin and the war in Chechnya. This is not a city for independent women – the ‘dyevs’ are often treated with contempt, interchangeable beauties simply there for sex and decoration while the only woman who is prepared to face Martin with the unvarnished truth is dumpy and a little plain. Martin mentions his plans to write a fictionalised story of his time in Moscow several times and I couldn’t help but notice that the well-travelled Erades spent some time in Russia. Not sure what I think about that but I am surprised at how much I enjoyed this debut. What could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 1

Cover imageSpoilt for choice this month: two posts for new titles, and now two for paperbacks. I’ll start the first selection with one of my books of 2015. I have to confess that I didn’t get on with Emily Woof’s first novel, The Whole Wide Beauty. It was lauded to the skies by all and sundry but I gave it up. The premise of The Lightning Tree was so appealing, though, that I decided to give her a second try and I’m very glad I did. The bare bones are this: girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, lefty activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. I find this structure a particularly attractive one: lots of lovely space for character development.

A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple also follows a relationship over many years. That name may ring a few bells for some readers – he’s the author of Snowdrops a hugely successful literary thriller set in Moscow in the 1990s, published back in 2010. His new novel begins in 1993 with two young British men, Neil and Adam, who meet on holiday in California. They instantly click then both become involved in a dubious moral act which dogs Adam, in particular. The book charts their friendship over nearly twenty years, picking out the tensions between them – Neil’s resentment of Adam’s casual privilege, career ups and downs, marriage and children with their attendant worries. Miller’s novel was an enjoyable piece of holiday reading for me last year which may explain why I remember it so well.

I think Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie would have stayed with me wherever I read it. As with Cover imageEmily Woof, I wasn’t particularly keen on Attenberg’s much praised The Middlesteins but the background to her new novel was so intriguing that it piqued my interest. The eponymous Mazie was the subject of a short essay by Joseph Mitchell first published in The New Yorker and included in his excellent collection Up in the Old Hotel. Like many of Mitchell’s subjects Mazie’s story is a fascinating one – an ordinary working-class New York woman who did something extraordinary. Attenberg has taken Mitchell’s essay and re-imagined Mazie’s life using fictionalised interviews and autobiography extracts with her diary as the novel’s backbone. Mazie is an unforgettable character, and Joseph Mitchell’s story is almost as interesting as hers.

Still in New York but fast forwarding several decades, Richard Bausch’s Before, During, After is an unusual take on the events of September 11th, 2001. As its title suggests, Bausch’s novel is set in the months before, during and after the terrorist attacks, exploring what happened very effectively by drawing parallels between the personal and the political. Michael and Natasha are newly in love, soon to be married. On the day of the attacks she’s in Jamaica with a friend, he’s in New York for a wedding. What follows is devastating for them both. It’s a profoundly involving novel – quite cerebral at times, but also emotionally engaging

Cover imageNow to one I haven’t read but am very much looking forward to: Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono. On the same day a retired Parisian police inspector receives a letter from a woman who claims to be his daughter, he finds a stranger waiting for him at his apartment. Professor Tadashi Omura tells Inspector Jovert his extraordinary life story which has surprising parallels with Jovert’s own. It sounds intriguing and comes from Tinder Press who seem to have developed a sharp eye for talent.

That’s it for the first batch of February paperbacks. A click on the title will take you to my review for the first four while The Snow Kimono will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new novels they’re here and here.