Before I even start, let me warn you: I am not about to debate the merits (or otherwise) of the inclusion on the 2008 Man Booker longlist for this novel – that might come later, should I feel the desire, and I suspect it might as I feel the author has been unfairly criticised on a personal level.
As a regular crime and thriller fiction reader – my thoughts are entirely on this novel for its own standalone merits, as a novel in the thriller genre. I am also someone who abhors hype. Thrust something in my face and I will walk away; that is my normal reaction. But, luckily for this novel, I did not suffer endless in-your-face-hype and I had the joy of listening to the author being interviewed at the Hay Festival earlier this year (a major plus). What stood out most for me was the age of the author - he took a difficult setting at such a young age (and I'm getting on now…). But back to the book in question and what can we expect from Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith?
Set in Stalin's Russia, the mood of the novel is intense and everyone is interacting and bargaining through their own measure of paranoia. The novel opens with a very heart-breaking scene, where we get to understand the nature of true poverty: one woman has had only her cat for comfort, to date, and for far too long in the circumstances. She has now decided it is time to give up and die. There are no longer any mice available for food, but she releases her previously succoured cat into the outside world and into a wilderness in which she hopes the cat has a chance of life after her. The cat doesn't, of course.
The cat itself represents food, long lost available food and meat to humans. It's seen by a child who enthusiastically returns home to suggest that there could be meat on the table, at long last. All he needs are some bones to entice the cat into a trap, and his mother opens up her well-hidden and preserved stash. Then we get to see the way that 10 year old male children have become forced to be the male and master of the house, once the father has gone. 8 year old brothers remain on apprenticeship, but they still matter and need to be trained in survival. These people need protein and they've not had the muscle of a mammal for a long time, where even a cat can provide the necessary and the cat becomes king in terms of food only.
But the boys don't return home with the cat. The cat is lost; the elder son too. When the mother realises she has lost her eldest son, as she wails in agony neighbour doors open and then close quickly because they've seen it all before and on too many occasions. The mother has to explain to her youngest son that just as they sought the cat for food, someone took her eldest son and his elder brother in the same way. For food.
Moving on 20 years, we are now following the career of one Leo Demidov, who has been a Stalinist stalwart, a soldier to behold and celebrated in the press, during the war and now working for the MGB; but his story suddenly leads him into the play on paranoia we might expect for that time. Not that he'd expected it.
In a nutshell: Leo Demidov, a war hero who became an active and successful employee in the Ministry of State Security, (MGB), is faced with the minimally expressed thought of crime – because crime does not exist in Stalinist Russia, because it devalues the ethos of the state regime, because it simply does not exist in Stalin's Russia. But one day, a member of his team suffers the loss of a child and the family think it is murder, although Stalin's regime would have "accidental death" as the conclusion. Demidov performs his duty, visiting the family and confronting them with the forced endorsement of the "accidental death" conclusion…
Alongside this case, Demidov chases a "traitor" he ultimately believes to be innocent, even when under interrogation, and his ever-competitive subordinate, Vasili forces Demidov to toe the line when Demidov suddenly finds another value system and questions that he as absorbed, to date…
Where Vasili is Demidov's nemesis in human terms, so proves life in general.
All in all, this was an excellently written novel based on Stalin's regime and it provided a remarkable insight into the paranoia that fed and bled that society to the extremes that it did. And congratulations to Tom Rob Smith for doing so and bringing that piece of history to us in a superb work of fiction!
To say this a novel to enjoy is a misnomer. It's full of history and heart-breaking reflections that make it a novel to be appreciated and a story to fulfill and enlighten. Above all the fiction makes it real and more accessible to reading than a dour text book for that time.
To say it's a "serial killer novel" is something that leads me to ire and disappointment, and this is where it fails, thankfully. It's not that and could never have been, if it had not been for publisher hype and PR. This novel is far more than this; it's a great evocation of setting of the time. And a beauty in that, telling the story of a great realisation in the time.
Chuck the "serial killer" input to one side and find a novel that puts this cliche in its place. In my mind, the serial killer part of the plot devalued an otherwise outstanding novel in Child 44. Read it and see!