04 April, 2009

Book 6 - Child 44, or: In Soviet Russia, sociopath eat you!

Completely unrelated link of the day: Hark, a vagrant! Kate Beaton draws hilarious cartoons - mostly about famous political figures, but occasionally about her family and friends, and fat ponies. If you said to me, "Helen, you can only read one cartoonist's strips about Napoleon eating cookies to get over Josephine for the rest of your life, or I will hunt you down and kill you," I would not believe you for a second, but I would keep reading Kate Beaton's comics.

The People Have Spoken: The results of my last poll are in, and Lewis Carroll has been voted as the most seriously messed up writers of children's stories. I don't know whether he was a paedophile, a lover of decapitation, or just fucked in the head, but I still wouldn't turn down whichever drugs he was on.

Lewis Carrol: Probably high on crack.

And now, to business: Hello, citizens. Today I'd like to talk to you about a serious problem facing our community. A lot of people still refuse even to mention it, preferring to turn a blind eye to what has been rightfully be described as a serious social disease. And it can effect anyone. Your friends and loved ones, your parents, your spouse, even your children could be hiding this shameful secret. It is your job - no, your duty - to find out which of your loved one have caught this - this illness - and now enjoy partaking in a meal of human flesh.

That's right, Hannibal. I'm talking about cannibalism.

Actually, I'd rather not talk about cannibalism, but unfortunately I read Child 44 and so now I'm going to have to.

Title: Child 44 (2008)

Author: Tom Rob Smith

Why this book?
My paternal unit (also known by his codename, "Dad") recommended it to me, and since we most have the same taste in fiction I gave it a go. By the "same taste in fiction" I mean that we both think gratuitous explosions = good, Steve Martin = bad, and swarms of the dead feeding upon the living = excellent.

What's it all about, anyway?
Our story begins in the Ukraine, in 1933. In the village of Chervoy, in the middle of winter, the people are slowly but surely starving to death. They've already eaten their boots, their clothes, and chewed their wooden furniture in their desperation, so it is nothing short of a miracle when a young boy, Pavel, spots a cat in the forest. He and his younger brother go into the forest to catch it, little realising that while they're hunting the cat there is someone hunting them...

Flash forward twenty years to Moscow, where crime no longer exists. Of course it doesn't exist, because crime is a symptom of a capitalist system and Soviet Russia has succeded in severing itself from all capitalism. The few - very few, of course! - crimes that are committed, must be committed by madmen, or foreigners, or gays - people who haven't accepted proper communist ideology.

And this is what Officer Leo Demidov believes, until he learns of the death of a young boy. As a war hero and a Party Member, Leo does his job and tells the boy's family that it couldn't possibly be murder; it must have been an accident. But the family refuses to believe him, and for the first time Leo starts to wonder if there really could be a real murderer somewhere in Russia.

Leo is framed by a jealous colleague and sent out to the middle of nowhere with his wife, Raisa - exiled. In the industrial town of Voualsk, not far from the Ural Mountains, Leo discovers more deaths of children, and starts to become convinced that there is a serial murderer at work. Even thinking such a thing is treasonous, and soon Leo and Raisa are on the run, trying to escape the police but still determined to track down the child killer.

Finally, both helped and hindered by many people along their journey, Leo realises he must face up to his own mysterious past in order to face down the murderer.

The good and the bad
Did I mention the cannibalism. OK, so actually it is a fairly minor part of the story and entirely realistic in its place in the story - desperate people do do desperate things - but still, that was the one thing about the book that really stuck with me. People gnawing on human flesh is right up their with people having their eyes removed for "things I never want to read about."

Child 44 is comes across as both thriller and political thriller. There are essentially two villains; one, the sociopathic serial killer who removes children's stomachs after murdering them, and the other the police officer Vasili, who is so twisted with hatred and jealousy for Leo that he is prepared to go to extreme lengths to bring him down. Smith effortlessly draws us in to the atmosphere of Stalin's Soviet Union; the desperation among those who are starving, the fear and suspicion that no one in Moscow can escape from.

The relationship between Leo and Raisa is a strong point in the story. Until they are exiled, the two have essentially been living a lie; while Leo has always loved his intelligent, beautiful wife, she has only pretended to love him not only for their entire marriage but during their courtship as well. Raisa hates the Party, hates Leo for being such a loyal Party member, hates Leo for being a war hero when that same war gave her scars that run very deep. But with their Moscow life stripped away from them, and with no one to rely on but each other, they slowly and surely build a relationship that is built on trust, truth and love.

I actually found the serial murderer plot one of the weaker points of the novel - maybe I'm just incapable of being surprised any more, but I had figured out what was going on long before the narrative really allowed for it. I was also left with too many loose ends for my comfort, although apparently this was only the first in a trilogy, so perhaps they will be tied up later.

So should I read it or what?
I'd definitely recommend this book for its wonderful portrayal of the heavy political atmosphere of the 50's, and its character development; both Leo and Raisa are drawn well, and I love Smith for giving us a detective's wife who is never a damsel in distress. Ocassional weak plotting aside, this is an excellent book - even with the cannabilism.


Jen said...

Eeek cannibalism, Im more of a wizard kind of girl

HelenB said...

Sure, you say that now, but what about stories that star wizard cannibals (or should that be cannibal wizards)? :D