Friday, 31 July 2009

Child 44 - a mystery thriller



Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith was devoured in less than 24 hours. It is a thriller, but with distinction: it is set in Russia in 1953, in the deepest of Stalin's regime. Leo Demidov is a State Police officer of the MGB. He thinks his life is all set, except that one day a child is found dead on the railroad tracks, and the father says he was murdered. In Stalin's Soviet state, murder couldn't exist, since the Soviet Union was good and the ideal state for mankind, so evil couldn't be there. Leo's trip into his heart of darkness goes to a place that still haunts most of us who grew up in the shadow of the Cold War - just how bad, and frightening, was Stalin's Soviet Union, and what would a person do to survive? In the long cold winters after the Great War (as WW2 was called in the USSR), what did the poor villagers do outside Moscow, where much of the wealth and food supply went? How did they survive? And in a nation that prized spying on one's neighbors and colleagues for acts of treason or suspicious behaviour, who can Leo trust when he realizes that in the heart of the USSR, along the railway lines, children are being murdered?

This book is not for the faint of heart. That's my warning to you, Gentle Reader. It is a very good mystery, one that only at the end as Leo unravelled it, did I understand all the links set up in the book. It is a frightening book, on many levels, not the least of which is the state of constant fear everyone lived in. One word, and bang! a character is taken in for questioning, most often never seen again. How could a society function like that? We see many betrayals as characters fight to survive, and the discovery of some things higher than survival - love, the truth, faithfulness. In the midst of madness (for surely the state while Stalin ran it was mad), acts of courage in the face of death.

The characters are all very well drawn, the pacing is fast, and the story is well-plotted. The setting - the setting raises the story from a good mystery thriller, to an extraordinarily good one. There are varying viewpoints in the book, and I liked this. It lets us see Russia through many eyes and opinions and responses. A fascinating glimpse into a world (that Stalinesque world doesn't exist, even if the legacy continues somewhat) thankfully mostly gone now.

For those who don't know, the Soviet Union did have a serial killer: Andrei Chikatilo.

One of my favourite things about the book is that Leo is not the perfect agent he thinks he is. He thinks he is a war hero, and does everything right, but he discovers that his actions have many unintended consequences, yet he keeps trying to make it right again. I really liked him, and many of the secondary characters.

A really enjoyable read, just make sure you have some time since it is very hard to put down!

4.5/5

12 comments:

Dawn said...

Thanks for the review! I love devouring books; demolishing them in a day is fantastic for a voracious reader like me. I will definitely have to check this one out--especially since I'm not usually reading this type of genre. I look forward to reading it (if that is the right thing to say about a book not for the faint-of-heart...)

Table Talk said...

A number of my friend read this when it appeared on the Booker list last year and their reactions were pretty similar to yours - an unputdownable read, but very scary - which is why I decided in the end not to read it. They were also uncertain as to why it made the Booker. Not because they didn't think it was a good book, but because it was so unusual a choice.

Stephanie said...

I've never heard of this, but it sounds really good!! I love a good serial killer thriller!! I especially love reading about the Russia and the KGB/MGB. Spy, espionage...I haven't read any in a while. Been stuck in a fantasy and YA kick. May have to switch things up a bit soon!

Susan said...

Dawn: You're welcome! and I totally agree with your 'look forward to reading a book not for the faint of heart' sentiment! lol Books to devour are so good sometimes!

Table Talk: Ann, I'm having trouble finding your blog! I'm out of town for the rest of today, so I will try and find you later tomorrow. I'm so glad you're back!

I agree with your friends that it was an unusual choice to make the Booker, but because you're not going to read it, I'll tell you - there is a lot about what people did to survive, that makes it very grim reading, and he captures the feel of that moment in Soviet history that defines what communism has become for the Western World - that same lack of freedom to be a self, to have individual ideas, that China has been crushing. After I read the book, I could see why it made the long list.

Stephanie: and here I was, thinking I was the last one to read it!!! lol I hope you enjoy it. It is creepy, but more, scary, because Communism (in the way it has been twisted by mankind, see my comment to Ann above)still exists, and people still have to live in a state of terror like this. Above and beyond the terrible crimes of the serial killer, is what people do in the name of the State......

Nymeth said...

It's so good to hear from you, Susan! I'm not usually too drawn to thrillers, but this does sound like a good one. And I also know very well how silly it is to dismiss whole genres :P

Bybee said...

I skimmed this review lightly because I want to read the book. It was one of the book club reads while I was on vacation. Looking forward to reading your review again in more depth when I've finished.

Table Talk said...

Susan, here's the link


http://ann163125b.wordpress.com/

See you over there.

Booklogged said...

I know so very little about Russia during this time period. Would like to know more. It's hard to believe that such evil was going on in the world just 50+ years ago. Even harder to believe that kind of stuff is still happening today.

Daphne said...

This sounds really good. I might have to pick it up!! I was wondering if you have read Gillian Flynn yet? She has two novels out, and I think you would like her books. Very dark and disturbing (but very, very good).

Care said...

OOoo, I do so want to read this!

Susan said...

Nymeth: I know, it's been hard for me to get around to all the blogs this summer. I'm so sorry! I miss you all! Once things settle down, I'll explain more.....I'm mostly just reading right now.

Bybee: I hope you get to read it soon!

Table Talk: thanks for the link! I'll be there!!

Booklogged: It is, isn't it, hard to believe that censorship still goes on? I read about the 36 radio stations that closed in Peru, and I was shocked. Just like that because they didn't support the newly-elected President. So it makes it more important to record what happens, and write about it, in all the ways we can, so we don't forget. And I do wonder if we will as a human race ever learn.

Daphne: NOt yet, but I have heard good things about her. Dark and disturbing and good sounds fun! though it depends how disturbing (in what way). Is there one i should start with?

Care: I hope you find it! Glad I could bring it to your attention!

Daphne said...

Hi Susan- Start with Sharp Objects. They're disturbing but mostly in an atmospheric sense. I think you'd like them. They're not happy books but I read them both each in one sitting! Could not put them down!