So one day I walk out and there are none, not an inkling nor a sign of them, and the next day there they are... snowdrops everywhere, and discovered over a weekend when I should have been reading War & Peace but found myself strangely lured into a rather sleazy yet incredibly evocative account of modern-day Russia via A.D.Miller's recently published novel Snowdrops.
Snowdrop holds another more macabre meaning in the context of this book because it is Moscow slang for a corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw and it is the discovery of just such a corpse that opens this book.
Nicholas Platt, in the '30-something zone of disappointment, a lawyer assigned to Moscow where he helps to set up the big-money petroleum deals with the oligarchs. Side-tracked by Masha and Katya, two predatory Russian women, Nicholas loses his grasp on any sense of moral direction he may have had. Surrounded by a heady mix of decadence and corruption, the gullible and naive Nicholas switches off all alarm bells under the heady influence of Masha who slowly draws him into an expensive and tangled web of deceit.
Now all that may not sound like the sort of book I would normally read and I would have to agree there is nothing uplifting about Snowdrops at all, (so not perhaps everyone's ideal read for the January doldrums) but for one tiny redeeming feature with which the book begins. Nicholas is clearly writing this as a form of confession to his unnamed wife-to-be... his guilt, complicity and shame about the events to be revealed are self-evident, as is his need to unburden himself of this account so that his fiancee can then decide whether she still wishes to marry him. In a way that chimed nicely with my own interpretation of the title because I always look on snowdrops as a rather humble first flower of the year... a sort of prayerfully bowed head that somehow seems to be offering apologies and first reparations for the winter we have just been through, to be quickly followed by the arrogant spring-is-sprung trumpeting of daffodils.
That's probably just me and a bit of wild imagination but that sense of Nicholas's hubris and subsequent humility held true throughout the book, and with it the realisation of an insight and self-awareness gained by learning from some huge mistake, so there are the seeds of redemption here, all is not lost.
Quite what that huge mistake is I won't elaborate on other than to tell you that the book works towards it, dropping the doubts in via a narrative so understated, yet one that moves on with such a compelling drive that I read the book in two long sittings. Yes, I did get a little confused about who paid what to whom for what and why and when but despite the drab monotone of Moscow, the sleaze, the cold and the grubby, grimy lives, I was riveted. A.D. Miller has a way of investing this tawdry drabness with an interest that gives this potentially monochromatic world some colour, characters have 'equal parts twinkle and menace' and I can strangely visualise the man who has a face 'like a perplexed potato' whilst the bitter cold pervades every page. That is until the action cleverly (or others may say obviously) moves to the much warmer Black Sea location of Odessa where truths, no longer shrouded and muffled by snow, are slowly uncovered.
As the Economist's Moscow correspondent for three years this is a world A.D.Miller clearly knows well and that shows up in the little details about modern Russian life and the people which I found so fascinating including something also evident in War and Peace, that the Russians are the world champions of the parquet floor.
I have to mention the book itself too. It's one of several that have arrived in this rather dinky, compact size which I discover (because I measured it at approx 7" x 5" and then looked it up) is called Crown Octavo and I then open up a whole new world of Royal Sixteenmo and Medium Thirtytwomo of which I knew little beyond something about the number of times the original sheet of paper is folded.