Title: Child 44
Author: Tom Rob Smith
Publisher: Whole Story Audio Books
ISBN: N/A (digital download via audible)
Narrator: Steven Pacey
It’s the early 1950’s in Russia and Leo Demidov is a war hero and high-ranking officer in the security services (specifically the MGB). He is asked to handle the delicate issue of a fellow MGB officer whose son has just died and who is claiming the boy was murdered rather than dying in accident as the official paperwork claims. Leo must convince the boy’s parents to stop making the claims of murder or risk their own arrest because, as everyone knows, senseless murders only happen in Corrupt western countries. At the same time Leo is investigating whether or not a Moscow vet, Anatoli Brodski, is a traitor as has been alleged. Both cases turn out to have unexpected impacts on Leo’s life when he’s thrown out of the MGB and he and his wife Raisa are punished for their transgressions.
In his debut novel Smith has painted a bleak picture of Stalin’s Russia where blind faith in the State, or pretence of it, is the norm. Across the disparate parts of this story people’s actions and decisions are fuelled by paranoia, desperation and vengeance. Many people abuse whatever power they have and many others live in constant fear of that abuse. The few acts motivated by love, friendship or hope are memorable for their rarity. In some ways this is a familiar picture of Russia during this era but I thought Smith did a better job than many writers in demonstrating the subtle differences in people’s behaviour and exploring the reasons behind that behaviour rather than portraying everyone in as stereotypical good and evil as is often the case.
Few of the characters are likable however understandable their actions may be. But likable characters aren’t necessary for me to find a book engaging: far more important is their believability and I found these people very credible in the context of the world Smith has depicted. I did though, in the end, grow quite fond of Leo even though many of his actions were abhorrent and I’m not entirely convinced that the kind of redemption explored in the novel is possible in the real world.
The writing is breathtaking in the way it depicts scenes so vividly that you’re transported to the places where action takes place and can feel the emotions of those involved. The opening passage for example, in which two young brothers catch a cat so they can eat a proper meal during a time when their entire village is literally starving to death, is stunning. By the end of it I swear my own amply full stomach was growling in sympathetic hunger pangs. Smith uses rich descriptions and exquisite details to provide a vivid picture of a time and place I’m very happy to have only visited in fiction.
For the most part the structure of the book is good too. Rather than the story unfolding in a linear fashion readers are shown events in various people’s lives which, at first, seem to have nothing to do with each other but later turn out to be related in unexpected ways. This piecing together gives the book an epic feel which is unusual for a book that takes place over the period of only a few months. My main criticism of an otherwise terrific book is that in the last third the plot moved from credible to silly with the number of ‘in-the-nick-of-time’ escapes and coincidences used to get to the ending. The sudden shift from nicely paced narrative to edge-of-your-seat thriller was jarring and unnecessary: these people’s stories were gripping enough without the addition of the ‘Hollywood’ elements and a resolution in keeping with the rest of the novel would have made much more sense.
There was a lot of hype about Child 44 when it was published (it was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize) which made me wait a while before reading it but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It’s an evocative portrayal of a time and place that’s been demonised many times in literature and movies but rarely explored in such a thoughtful and thought-provoking way.
Audio book Specific Comments: A couple of times the narration crossed the line from reading into performance although it was only with the voices of a couple of minor characters so it wasn’t too jarring. Listening to this book provided an unexpected advantage too. When reading books set in non English speaking places I, being woefully monolingual, usually have to come up with some anglicised version of people and place names to keep everything clear this can interrupt the flow of my reading. Having the many names pronounced perfectly for me removed this frustrating element and I found it much easier to keep track of all the places and people than I normally do with foreign names.
My rating 4.5/5