Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Child 44 - Tom Rob Smith

I don’t know why I haven’t read Tom Rob Smith’s debut sooner as it’s a book I have been meaning to read for ages. Maybe I was worried that after all the brilliant reviews, and all the discussion on the Booker Nomination, that I might be left disappointed? It could also be the fact I had the hardback copy and they tend to be slightly put of when I am doing a lot of travelling, though I actually read this partly on a train journey. I think in all honesty I was slightly worried that I wouldn’t be able to grasp or be interested in Stalin’s Russia, boy oh boy was I wrong. I couldn’t stop turning the pages let alone put the book down.

Child 44 is set in the 1950’s Soviet Union. A child is found dead with what appears to be soil in his mouth and his family are sure that this is murder despite the boy’s body being found on the train tracks. Leo Demidov of the MGB is sent to cool things over and persuade the family that this is nothing more than a tragic accident, a job he does begrudgingly as he feels it is taking his time away from his more important work. However when Leo himself goes through some very changing circumstances and another body of a child with soil in its mouth is found he begins to realise that there may be a serial killer out there.

Behind what is a very intriguing, if gruesome and quite dark, storyline is also the tale of Russia in the few years leading up to Stalin’s death. Russia is a place plagued with paranoia where the innocent are guilty and bad can be innocent if they go about things the right (or technically wrong) way. I was shocked reading this novel at just how corrupt people where and just how many people were slaughtered needlessly and made guilty without any way of fighting to prove their innocence. Leo himself is one of the people who imposes the regime and believes in it, until the regime turns against him and those he loves. I know this is fiction but it is clear Tom Rob Smith has done his research meticulously as the setting was so well written I could feel the cold icy snowy air around me as I read the book, and no, I didn’t just have the windows open. It became all became very real to me and when I had finished the book I went off to do much more research on the era.

One thing I have to say is what a wonderful character I thought Leo was. I was determined not to like him in the first few chapters and especially after a torture scene. He is a man hardened to life who though he loves his wife and family is more loyal to his country than anything else or anyone else who gets in his way. You wouldn’t think that a character like that would become enjoyable to read. However soon enough I was on the breathless never ceasing adventurous journey with him. Adventure sums up this book pretty well too, and you can see where Tom Rob Smith’s own love for Arthur Conan Doyle comes in, it’s a page turner but not in an airport lounge shop sort of way if you know what I mean.

There is quite a lot of gore in the novel and a few very uncomfortable scenes but their needs to be for the story to work. I can’t say that a book about a child killer is an easy or enjoyable read as its not, but it’s an incredible read non the less. My only slight dislike was the speech in italics, I have never personally liked that though I found myself forgiving it and will undoubtedly do so in the next novel The Secret Speech which I am looking forward to enormously. I didn't think that this was written like a film screenplay (though it is being made into a film) though if it had been it wouldn't shock as that was what Tom Rob Smith did before he turned his hand to novel writing. I thought it was a sparse engrossing book that deserves all the awards its been put up for and more.

Now for some very EXCITING NEWS! I am going to be interviewing Tom tomorrow (at his house – what biscuits should I take?) and so I wondered if any of you have any questions for him? This is open to everyone whether you have read the book, heard about the book, or would just like to ask an author anything at all? If so leave your comments and I will see what I can do!

7 comments:

Sandy Nawrot said...

I, too, loved this book. I thought the character development was phenomenal, having spent a chunk of the book just learning about his history, and the current state of Russia. I listened to the book on audio, which was phenomenal (great accents) so I didn't have the italics issues, which I have heard about before. I wish I'd have known I could throw out questions to you...I would have been thinking about it! I'm not good thinking on my feet, so will have to trust your judgement! I can't wait!

Simon Savidge said...

Hey Sandy, I am not going till tomorrow afternoon and will check back on here before I go! Lovely having your comments by the way!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I guess I'm just interested in exactly where he got his research that created such a terrifying atmosphere in this book. I guess we all know it sucked during that time, but where did he get his inspiration? Also, one thing I like to ask people is "tell me one thing about yourself that would surprise us."

I am seriously suffering from a case of jealousy here. It is one thing to interview someone via e-mail, but face-to-face???? How did you pull it off?

Simon Savidge said...

Aha thats my little secret! I ave put all those questions in my notepad so they will all be asked!

Cornflower said...

Brilliant book (question coming under separate cover!)

farmlanebooks said...

That's really exciting! I hope you had a great time! I look forward to reading the interview.

David (dsc73277) said...

I finished reading this excellent book a few days ago. In my view it fully deserved it's Booker nomination, since I take the view that serious book prizes should reward books that explore serious issues, and Tom Rob Smith shows how this can be done within the framework of a thriller with a gripping plot. It should be said that, for me at least, it didn't really become gripping until after the first 100 pages or so. Anyone who initially finds it a bit slow would therefore be advised to persist.

The only significant weakness of the book for me was that the motivation for the killing is not wholly convincing, but then it is a necessary device to make the whole thing work. In any case, why seek a rational explanation for the most irrational of acts?

Like you, Simon, I'm not a great fan of italicisation in novels, though I didn't find its use here too annoying. I find it worse when used for lengthy passages rather than short pieces of dialogue.

I thought it was particularly clever how TRS managed to find a way of keeping his hero alive at the end and thereby leaving the door open to the sequel which has just been published. I wonder if it was always going to end this way, or if the hand of the agent or publisher intervened here? I must go and look again at that interview you did with the author to see if this question is answered there.