SNOWDROPS by A.D Miller
You move to a new place - city, country, continent. No one knows you or anything about you. You can become anything or anyone you want to be. You can leave behind the detritus of your old home/city/country/life and start again. You can live a life different from the one you left. The more different the place, the more different you can become.
Nick Platt is 30-something, a lawyer, who is now in his fourth year working and living in Moscow. He speaks Russian fluently, knows the city and feels he has a pretty good handle on the place. In the early 2000s, when the novel is set, the former Soviet republic is in the throes of embracing capitalism, creating oligarchs and millionaires overnight. Nick works for a company that aids this process - setting up and managing deals between Western funds and Eastern resources. Moving faster than the pace of change can keep up, it is hardly surprising that moral and ethical lines are crossed, and that the lines between good and bad, legal and illegal, moral and corrupt are blurred until they become indistinguishable. How easy is it for someone born and brought up in a straight line place like Britain with its centuries old justice system and Christian ethic, to be corrupted by a society where all the rules have recently been thrown away, living on your wits, and trying to outdo your opponents is really the only way to get ahead?
Quite by chance one day, or is it by chance, Nick meets two beautiful sisters. An intense romance and love affair develops between Nick and one of the girls, Masha. In true capitalist fashion Masha works for a mobile phone company in customer services, and her sister is a student who also waits tables part time. Or are they. They introduce Nick to their elderly aunt, Tatiana, who lives in a flat gifted to her by previous regimes. She wants to leave Moscow and retire to a new apartment block in the suburbs of Moscow. Nick's services as a lawyer are enlisted to help the transactions go smoothly. It becomes apparent fairly early on to the reader that something is not quite right in this set up, and it is also apparent to Nick that every step he takes in his relationships with these women takes him further off the true north of his moral compass, but yet he seems incapable of getting himself back on track.
At the same time as this little scenario is unfolding, the company he works for is involved in brokering a deal between a US bank and the Cossack who is acting for an energy company looking at drilling oil off the coast and piping it overland. Alarm bells are ringing all over the place, but again Nick and his partner, who is Italian, simply allow it all to happen. It is almost as if they have now been in Russia long enough to have had all the moral and ethical vestments of their previous lives fall off them. This is most marked when about half way through the story, Nick goes back to England for Christmas to see his parents, his siblings and their families. Yes, just like all good Russian novels and movies, they all seem to be set in the depths of winter and no one seems to be able to do winter quite like the Russians. The title 'Snowdrop' refers to a corpse that has been covered by snow over winter, and then as spring begins, the thaw reveals the body.
At his parents' he just can't seem to find his feet or his heart for these few days. Now we all know family Christmas can be a fraught business but his attitude is one of such non-involvement that you can't help wonder if he really does have reason to hate his family. Getting back to Moscow of course, where he suddenly feels alive and at home, you then know that he has probably been there too long! If you were in the tropics, it would be called 'gone troppo', in Russia I don't know what they call it, but all I can think is that the heart and soul have been iced over.
So of course as we become more certain the house of cards is going to fall over, we watch with increasing fascination as Nick clumsily negotiates his way around, trying to deny what is going on but continuing to facilitate the process. He narrates the story in hindsight some years later to a person we assume to be his fiancee. Either he is talking directly to her or writing a letter, but however he is doing it, his means of story telling is almost like a confession, a complete unburdening of his soul, almost as if he is seeking forgiveness.
This is dark, foreboding writing. Nick has made a very small world for himself and in reading I almost felt a sense of suffocation as he finds himself sucked further and further into the vortex. The writer lived in Moscow for three years as correspondent for 'The Economist'. He writes beautifully of the city - its physical structure, and very atmospherically of its dark side, its underbelly, of which there is plenty. None of the characters with the exception perhaps of Tatiana and Nick's elderly neighbour, who represent the old Russia, are very nice people and I am glad I am not Russian. An unsettling story, touching on the dark side of our inner selves, and perhaps a morality tale on what can happen when you try to shed your old skin to take on a new one.
A TRAIN IN WINTER by Caroline Moorehead
War does not discriminate in its treatment of men and women. Those of the fairer, weaker sex are treated just as appallingly and brutally as their menfolk. Most of it of course we never get to hear about: war historically being men's business, women and children simply collateral damage. But from time to time, there emerges first hand accounts of small pockets of individuals who all suffered, with amazingly some surviving. Such a small group out of all the millions incarcerated and murdered in Nazi concentration camps during World War II were 230 women from France. Arrested in France, they found themselves imprisoned in small groups in a number of prisons in France, then in January 1943 brought together and transported by train to Auschwitz. Of those 230 women only 49 returned.
Through interviews with a few of the remaining living survivors and the families of those women no longer living, the author who has a background as a human rights journalist and is also a prolific biographer, has compiled an absorbing, harrowing, intensely sad, respectful and thoroughly researched biography of this group of women. This is the story of their incarcerations, their transport, their truly appalling time in Auschwitz and their ultimate survival. The key to their survival was the women themselves - their constant vigilance, care and support of each other, their shielding of each other from prison guards, their absolute determination that they would do their utmost to fight against what was going on around them.
The women were all ages, ranging from 17 years old to mid-70s. They were from cities, towns, villages, the countryside. Most were born in France, some born in Spain, Poland and Belgium who came to France when they married Frenchmen. They were school girls, farmers' wives, rich, poor, doctors, teachers, shop owners, writers, mothers, Christian, Jewish, communist - just like the myriad variety of women we have in our own communities. They really had nothing in common before the war, but once France was taken over by Germany (the first chapter gives an excellent and concise background to this take over) they were united in their hatred of the Germans, their pride in being French and their determination in making life as difficult as possible for the Germans. These women were all arrested by the Germans, essentially for crimes of resistance. From the 17 year old school girl seen dabbing an anti Nazi slogan on a wall, to operating a printing press, to distributing pamphlets, to harbouring Jews, escapees, allied airmen, to helping people pass over the demarcation line, to running errands, to simply being friends with the wrong people, completely arbitrary arrests in some cases.
Their time together in the prisons in France began the bond-building process that was to be so crucial to their survival in the Polish camps. Many of the women had their menfolk shot/hung by the Germans, most of them left behind children, a number of them were interrogated/tortured themselves. The 'getting-on' was not without difficulties as you would imagine bringing together such a disparate group of females in such trying circumstances. But by the time the decision had been made to send them en-masse to the camps, those bonds were firmly in place. And boy oh boy did they need them.
We know about the brutality of the camps, the appalling living conditions - these after all were death camps, you weren't supposed to come out alive. And yet reading about these camps again is just as awful and horrifying as every other time we have read or heard about them. That any of these women did is a miracle in itself. Some died the day they arrived in the camp - the shock being too great to bear; many of them died of dysentery or typhus in the first couple of months, many just simply collapsed in the snow and didn't get up again, many were beaten to death or just randomly picked to be gassed that day. The odds of anyone surviving or being in the wrong place at the wrong time were impossible to calculate.
For all the surviving women, their liberation was simply the beginning of the next huge struggle. Their physical and mental health would never recover, many had lost husbands and children, homes, livlihoods. The struggle to live after the war was probably as overwhelming as the struggle to live during the war. Many felt guilty for surviving.
This book brought home to me two things. Firstly the power of the human spirit and how we do need each other to survive and live well. Secondly how we need to be regularly reminded about the brutality of man to man. We may not be able to do anything about it, but at least it touches the humanity in us.
THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY by Simon Mawer
Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That's one of the things that war does. And we wonder too, if we were placed under such pressures as having our country occupied by an enemy, would we too do find ourselves doing extraordinary things? Almost immediately after France was occupied by Germany in 1940, General De Gaulle, from his base in London, as head of the Free French movement, called on his compatriots in France to resist the German occupation at all costs so as to keep France free and restore the glory of France. Just a month later, the British Government formed the Special Operations Executive, a largely secretive organisation that was to undertake a variety of tasks including espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in Europe against Germany and its allies, and to use and aid the local resistance movements to achieve these aims. The SOE depended for its success on recruiting agents who could pass as natives of the countries they were placed into. Dual citizenship, years of living in the subject country, fluency in the language, an affinity with the country were all qualities highly sought after.
France was not the only country that the SOE operated in, but it is the subject of this novel, the latest by Simon Mawer, whose previous novel, 'The Glass Room' was short listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Young Marian Sutro, with her English diplomat father, and her French mother has lived much of her life in Switzerland and also knows Paris very well. Marian works for the WAAF where her intelligence and steady nerves have her working in the Filter Room, a section of the Defence system where aircraft positions are plotted and recorded. She comes to the attention of a SOE recruiter. After having the dangers outlined to her, which are many, she agrees to join the SOE, and so her big adventure begins. She is sent to Scotland to a training facility where she undergoes a most extensive and intensive training course in all aspects of self-preservation, espionage, surveillance, wireless work and essentially survival.
And finally comes her big moment of being parachuted into France to begin her big adventure. To this point the story has trundled along at quite a leisurely unexciting sort of pace - really setting the scene for the second half. We are introduced to her fellow 'students' at the training camp, especially Benoit and Yvette. We are also introduced to her brother Ned who is a physicist and read about a Frenchman, Clement, a slightly older family friend who she had a mad crush on during her teenage years and who is now a nuclear physicist still in occupied Paris.
Once Marian, now Alice, and soon to take on a third identity, lands in France, we are immediately plunged into the adrenalin laced, terrifying, stressful, and exhausting life of the partisan/resistance worker. From the countryside of the still unoccupied south west France to German-infested Paris, Marian attempts to do the tasks she has been assigned. Which I won't divulge here! The contrast in the writing style is quite pronounced and the book very quickly becomes a page turner. While very much a tale of good vs evil, it is primarily the story of Marian's growth: from a young, naive, perhaps bit spoilt, bored girl into a highly trained, sophisticated, professional, self aware woman. And never once do you let your guard down.
The stories of women resistance workers have been told many times and in many different forms over the decades. But whether they are true as in the life of Nancy Wake or fictional as in Sebastian Faulkes' 'Charlotte Grey' or William Boyd's 'Restless' they still have the ability to make us wonder how we would behave, leave us in awe and above all humble us. A most worthwhile read.
Review copy supplied by Hachette NZ via NZ Booksellers.