Child 44 by Tom Robb Smith. Four Stars.
Child 44 is a novel I stayed up into the middle of the night to finish because I absolutely had to know what happened. Few novels transfix me like this. In fact, I find most novels so boring I can’t finish them. But not this one.
This is Tom Robb Smith’s first novel and it was published in 2008. It is a mystery set in Stalinist Russia in 1955. What makes this book so outstanding is the following: the author re-creates for us in a tangible way the sense of oppression, the fear of denunciation, and the terrible sense of isolation people felt when they lived in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s Reign of Terror. Having written a novel which takes place decades ago in another country, I know how hard this is to do.
In Stalin’s Russia, since you could trust no one, you lived in a personal hell of emotional isolation. It was you against the entire state so you did only what you were told. Thinking was discouraged. You questioned nothing. Creating this sense of isolation and dependence on the state was the purpose behind the constant and arbitrary arrests each year of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Brought before a “kangaroo court,” all of these innocents were immediately convicted of anti-Soviet activity and sent to the gulag for twenty-five years.
No one would help you if you were arrested. In fact, no one could help you. No one even knew where you were since you were whisked away in the middle of the night. You could only help yourself by denouncing others including your family members. Ordinary people confessed to fantastic crimes.
How could one live in a society like that? Trusting no one, living with the fear your lover might turn on you, knowing that no matter how insignificant you were someone was watching you. Tom Robb Smith gives you a “gut feel” of what living in this nightmare must have been like. His fascinating characters, details of the era and a highly creative way of writing make this a gem.
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith was the first and, until now, the best of these Soviet murder/police/intrigue mysteries. When Gorky Park was published in 1981 the Cold War was still on. We knew nothing of everyday life in the Soviet Union. Martin Cruz Smith captured that time for us and his novel became a huge bestseller and a movie.
I have never since liked novels of this genre. They were all derivative of Gorky Park. Until now. Child 44 is better than Gorky Park. Much better actually. It is one hell of a read.