Monday, April 7, 2008

The algebra of betrayal (Books - Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith)

Each class had concluded with a short quiz to make sure all the information had been absorbed.

Who loves you most? Correct answer: Stalin.
Who do you love most? correct answer: see above
(wrong answers to be logged).
What should you never do? Correct answer:
play on the railway tracks.

Raisa could only presume that the reason behind this latest edict was that the Party was worried about population levels.

As a rule her classes were tiring, perhaps more so than other subjects. Whereas there was no expectation that students should clap at the completion of every mathematical equation there was an expectation that every pronouncement she made regarding Generalissimo Stalin, the state of the Soviet Union or the prospects for worldwide revolution be me with applause.

Raisa is the wife of Leo, the central character in Child 44 - a State Security Officer turned detective. Tom Rob Smith describes her trying not to learn the names of her students so that she could not relate to them as individuals, as if knowing someone's name made it possible to denounce them. It is impressive how much description of the experience of day-to-day life in Stalinist Russia pervades this novel. I loved the page devoted to the Moscow metro system - which one could enter through a pillared marble hall capped with domes of frosted glass - but the theme that hangs over the novel like a smell is betrayal. Betrayal of love, betrayal of the state, betrayal of oneself and the complicated algebra one must go through if one is to have any sort of conscience and act in this world.

The problem with becoming powerless, as you are now, is that people start telling you the truth. You're not used to it, you've lived in a world protected by the fear you inspire. But if we're going to stay together, let's cut the deluded romanticism. Circumstance is the glue between us. I have you. You have me. We don't have very much else. And if we're going to stay together, from now on I tell you the truth, no comfortable lies - we're equal as we have never been equal before. You can take if or I can wait for the next train.

I won't tell you which character says these words or under what circumstances, but suffice it to say that the balance of power is constantly shifting in this thoughtful historical thriller and this is not only an important element for the plot but also for Smith's evocation of life in Stalinist Russia. Unfortunately it is very hard to write about this book without giving away the plot, and that would ruin it for you. So although I am 100 or so pages from the end, I am going to leave off here with my recommendation. Whether you read it for its page-turning plot, its characterizations, or how it captures history it is convincing, surprising, and involving.

My other posts on this book are here and here.


Sheila O'Malley said...

I literally cannot wait to read this book. I've pre-ordered it.

Danielle said...

I thought this was a great read--it was very unexpected in many ways. Sometimes thrillers can be very predictable, but he was good at throwing some curves that I didn't see coming. And it is hard to talk about the book without giving away all the surprises!

heather (errantdreams) said...

Not my usual kind of book, but it sounds fascinating for the characters alone!

Ted said...

S - I can't wait to hear your reaction to it. It's clearly written in a popular fictional idiom but it is so detailed. Since you have much more factual knowledge than I about this period in history I'll be interested to hear what your thoughts are on its accuracy.

Danielle - Yes, exactly. I've been surprised repeatedly.

Heather - It's tough to stomach what happens to the individual people in this book. The crimes are pretty brutal, and so is the relentless purging by the government. How they betrayed their own ideals, particularly due to one man's paranoia, is remarkable. But history never tires of repeating itself. This is a compelling way to immerse oneself in that day-to-day realm. To imagine oneself in it. Fascinating!