Since Maria had decided to die, her cat would have to fend for itself. She'd already cared for it beyond the point where keeping a pet made any sense. Rats and mice had long since been trapped and eaten by the villagers. Domestic animals had disappeared shortly after that. All except for one, this cat, her companion which she'd kept hidden. Why hadn't she killed it? She needed something to live for; something to protect and love - something to survive for. She'd made a promise to continue feeding it up until the day she could no longer feed herself. That was today. Shed' already cut her leather boots into thin strips, boiled them with nettles and beetroot seeds. She'd already dug for earthworms, sucked on bark. This morning in a feverish delirium she'd gnawed the leg of her kitchen stool, chewed and chewed until there were splinters jutting out of her gums. Upon seeing her the cat had run away, hiding under the bed, refusing to show itself even as she knelt down, calling its name, trying to coax it out. That had been the moment Maria decided to die, with nothing to eat and nothing to love.
With an opening paragraph like that, what are you going to do for an encore? Tom Rob Smith's debut novel Child 44 is not for the faint of heart. In the first fifty pages we encounter two young brothers in the 1950s in Moscow. One of the brothers dies. An MGB official must tell the unbelieving family that their son's death was accidental, but they won't believe him. They claim to have evidence to the contrary. Or do they? Is it only grief that is making them believe they have evidence? The MGB official is told to investigate the matter no further. Somehow this death may be connected to the death of a young boy in the Stalinist era during the 1930s in the Ukraine but as yet we don't know how. This story has me in its grip from the start. Smith's lens is finely focused. His descriptions sift the sand for the sorts of details that I find fascinating - he writes what it is like living life in that room, in that time, in that body, in that mind moment-to-moment, rather that simply telling us what happens next. I'll report on my progress as I read but I'll try not to spoil it for you.