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28th January
2011
written by Steph

When I read and reviewed Room by Emma Donoghue late last year, I really didn’t like it. Part of me was rather surprised that the book had received such acclaim because I found the majority of its narrative rather superficial and lacking in real depth. Many readers who did enjoy Room thoughtfully responded to my crankiness by saying that my expectations had perhaps not been quite correct going into the book, as they had not necessarily approached it as a literary novel, but one that was a fast-paced page-turner. Perhaps if I too had gone into Room expecting something more straightforward I would have liked it more… When I picked up Child 44, I recalled some of the reviews I had read about it when it was first released, and even though it was short-listed for the Booker Award in 2008, I decided to approach it as a standard thriller and put aside expectations of it having to transcend that genre or having an obvious literary quality to its writing. Child 44 largely follows the trials and tribulations Leo Demidov who works for the MGB in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule. As the novel begins, Leo is essentially a lackey working as an investigator for the government, seeking out potential spies and traitors and finding proof of their duplicity. When a child is found dead near the railroad tracks in Moscow, Leo is tasked with quelling the child’s family’s claims that the young boy was murdered, since murder has no place in a happy communist society. Unfortunately, Leo soon learns that the government is a fickle friend, and he soon finds his own family under investigation, with the prospects of a hardscrabble life in the gulags (or worse) a very real possibility. When Leo discovers that other children across the union have turned up dead in ways suspiciously similar to the boy in Moscow, he decides to put his life and job on the line and goes in search of a killer that his country denies exists, and would terminate him for finding. I was really impressed and entertained by Child 44. I thought it was a superb mystery/thriller, that had fantastic pacing and a very spooky setting. Although Tony was surprised that I showed an interest in it (because of its setting in Russia? Because it has a strong political element?), I loved the political aspect to the novel, which I think added a lot of tension to the novel and gave the book a strange and terrifying atmosphere. I also thought that Smith did a great job of weaving together the various characters that are scattered across the Soviet Union and tying all the plotlines together in a way that gradually revealed crucial information so that I was always hungry to find out what would happen next. I also thought that the writing itself was very strong, and although I’m not certain this book is necessarily on par with the majority of books that get nominated for the Booker, I still found it really clever and can completely understand its appeal. I did find the resolution of the mystery a bit weak, and perhaps even anticlimactic in some ways, and I did figure out one of the twists before it was revealed but Smith still left enough up in the air so that things could be resolved in various ways that I kept reading to see how it would all turn out. I think that one of the novel’s great strengths is that it works as a mystery but it also operates on a deeper level that examines the hardships of living in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign, so even if one aspect doesn’t work for you, it’s likely that the other one will. I think it’s tough for authors to come up with fresh but believable obstacles for sleuths to face in mystery novels, but with the setting Smith envisioned, he manages to make the stakes incredibly high and the course ridiculously dangerous and fraught in a way that no reader will have difficulty accepting. Overall, super enjoyable and I’m glad I read it. Certainly worthwhile for those looking for a mystery on an international scale and for those that tend to enjoy the thriller genre. I have heard lackluster reviews of Smith’s follow-up novel, The Secret Speech, which is disappointing because Child 44 is so strong that by its end, you’d expect Smith to have a fairly successful series on his hands. I may try Smith’s next book at some point in the future, but for now I am satisfied by what I had read and would rather not tarnish a great reading experience.

17 Comments

  1. 01/28/2011

    I liked the political setting aspect better than the murder story aspect, because you’re right that it’s hard to give the traditional sleuth tale something fresh!

  2. I listened to the audio for this book and loved it! I think it is my favourite audio book. The accents really added to the atmosphere and brought the whole thing to life for me. I’m pleased that you enjoyed it too. One day I’ll get round to Secret Speech, but all those negative reviews are putting me off too. 🙁

  3. 01/28/2011

    I enjoyed this one too, treating it as a superior thriller rather than a literary novel. I loved the setting and the political aspects – they brought it to life.

  4. 01/28/2011

    I haven’t read the book and in fact this is my first time reading about it as well. A political setting and a murder would be just up my street. Thanks for this review.

  5. 01/29/2011

    A fine review indeed. I must read Tom Robb Smith and this looks a great place to start. I am reading a book by Olga Grushin at the moment which is also set in the Soviet Union – it makes a great location for Western readers as it is so alien to us. I like your word “hardscrabble” which is not a word we use over here in the UK – how descriptive it is

  6. 01/29/2011

    @ rhapsody: I do think Smith does a decent job of making Child 44 fresh, but I agree that the political aspect of the plot was probably the most compelling element to me. I did figure out the twist a bit earlier than may have been expected, so the mystery wasn’t a complete success for me.
     
    @ Jackie: I remember you saying that you enjoyed this on audio – I could see how it would be a very good audiobook. It was great in print too! 😉
     
    @ Annabel: Yes, it was definitely a superior thriller, in my mind more like Tana French than some of the other stuff I’ve read!
     
    @ Mystica: It seems like politics and murder so often mix! 😀 This is a good one!
     
    @ Tom C: Yes, the Soviet Union is so foreign for us, which I think really ratchets up the tension for these thrillers. It seems like the odds are really stacked against oneself!
     
    @ Teresa: I wasn’t sure how to approach this review, and then I realized that comparing it to my reading experience to Room was perfect. Perhaps if I hadn’t read reviews of this one that had been disappointed because it wasn’t as literary as the reader had expected given its link to the Booker I might have been disappointed as well, like I was with Room!

  7. 01/29/2011

    I read this when it was on the Booker longlist, and I also enjoyed it. As a thriller, I thought it was a great success, and I kind of wish it hadn’t made the Booker list because I think that made kind of a mess of people’s expectations.

  8. 01/30/2011

    I’m always on the lookout for good mysteries, and the political aspect of this one makes it sound extra appealing. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it!

  9. 01/30/2011

    A coworker from my old bookstore job really loved this book. I wasn’t sure it was really my kind of thing, but reading your description, it sounds more interesting than I’d originally thought. Not sure I’ll run right out and read it, but if it crosses my path again, perhaps I’ll give it a chance!

  10. 01/30/2011

    I had been curious about this book, but thought it might not be for me, given the genre. I am surprised to hear that it was so good, and now you’ve got me really interested in trying it. I do like fiction set in and around Russia, and think that the plot synopsis sounds like something I would enjoy. I can’t imagine why I was so prejudiced against it! Great review, Steph, and I am glad that it exceeded your expectations!

  11. 01/31/2011

    @ Nymeth: This was definitely one of the better mysteries I’ve read, even if it doesn’t take place during my beloved Golden Age! 😉
     
    @ Erin: Yes, when this book originally came out, I thought it sounded fine but not really my thing. For whatever reason, I had a complete change of heart and picked this up at the used bookstore during one of my pilgrimages, and I’m so glad I did. It was definitely a diverting read.
     
    @ zibilee: After a few Russian blunders in the past few years, I’ve been shying away from Russian authors… While Smith isn’t Russian (he’s English), I think the setting made this a nice way of tentatively returning to the fiction of that country. I’m feeling better already about trying some of the other writers of Russia (and beyond)!

  12. […] Steph & Tony Investigate! by Steph – ““Child 44” by Tom Rob Smith“ […]

  13. JoV
    02/01/2011

    What took you so.. long to read this?!! Just kidding. Now that you read it, I’m happy that you love it. Me too. I thought it was superb. Both political and the thriller aspects.

    Yesterday I stumbled upon a used copy of “Room”. At a glance, like you said it lack the depth, so I told myself I’m going to borrow it from the library. By afternoon I was back there at the shop and bought the copy. There is just so much hype about it that I wanted to read it and experience myself what’s the fuss is all about.

    I just need to say this again, Go pick up and read Child 44!

  14. JoV
    02/01/2011

    Say it to the world I mean, Go pick up and read Child 44 now! 😉

  15. 02/01/2011

    I think having the right expectations about a book does make a difference. This one sounds like a fun, thrilling read!

  16. 02/02/2011

    @ JoV: There is no excuse for it taking me so long to read this book! Hopefully others will learn from my experience!
     
    @ Kathleen: Yes, I definitely agree that letting the book tell its story rather than going in expecting one thing and getting another is a great way to ensure book success!

  17. 02/11/2011

    I read a lot of reviews on this book when it first came out and I think most of them were very positive. Glad to hear you enjoyed it. I may have to give this a twirl sometime.

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