Monday, June 1, 2009

Book review: Child 44


Child 44, written by Tom Rob Smith, published 2008

Malaysian readers should be familiar with Popular bookstores, with its ubiquitous red logo and generally bland selection of titles. Don't expect to find what you're looking for, unless it's a study aid for your PMR or SPM papers. Unfortunately, I was stuck for several hours in town, and there was really nothing else to do while waiting to take a train back home; this was the only bookstore in a newly opened mall, and goddammit, I was bored as fuck. The day before, I caught the new Terminator movie with a friend (which I give a 6.5/10); we'd driven south but I had to make my own way back since he had a course to attend, and it was his car, not mine.

So, I walked in, hoping at the very least that I wouldn't be too aggrieved with the books on display (man, they had a whole buttload of teen fantasies and chick lit). I saw Child 44 in their fiction section and read the synopsis on the back, and it sounded intruiging. At the very least I'd have something to read for the next few hours, and it's a thriller set in Soviet Russia, and I haven't read too many of those, not since The Russia House, which I read when I was 14 or 13 I think. And what do you know, it's a really good crime/thriller book!

So the story is set throughout the Stalinist era Russia, from around 1933 to the mid 1950's, from the height of Stalin's power to around the time of his death. This was when gulags were in full use, when torture was pretty much standard operating procedure for any target. Privacy was a non-issue and equality for all meant special privileges for the ruling class while the rest of society lived in crowded tenements and were lucky to have indoor plumbing and heating. The slightest word said out of turn branded you as a dissident, traitor, or spy, and meant 25 years to life in the clink, or execution. There was no police, just the local militia, and crime was considered extinct when everyone was on level terms, and due process of law was only practised when there was a confession, genuine or under duress. People were considered guilty simply by association when it came to political enemies. Pretty much how the world is today!

Child 44 follows the triumphs and trials of Leo Demidov, a loyal servant of Russia and senior officer in the MGB, a state office created to maintain control and terror of the citizenry. He's a former war hero, and believes that all his orders and actions are for the greater good. His world is shaken when he's ordered to bring in a suspected spy, a veterinarian, who ran when he suspected that he was a target. The vet turns out to be innocent, but that knowledge doesn't prevent his being tortured (by injection of camphor oil into the vein) and eventually killed. His friends are brutally executed as well, because they were suspected to have aided in his attempt to flee the country. Leo is powerless to stop this, and his confidence is shot. Seeing this weakness, his office gives him his next task: to investigate and apprehend his own wife, Raisa, on suspicion of being a spy as well.

Refusing to turn in his wife to save his own skin, Leo sets in motion the rest of the novel. From a study on how those in a position of power take their authority for granted, Child 44 then shows just how quickly the most loyal and powerful can fall, and the disparity between the fat cats in Moscow and the lowliest villagers and factory workers. Beyond being a simple tale of fugitives on the run from Big Brother, it's just as much about the cruelty and overall absurdity of Revolution-era Russia. I couldn't help but draw parallels with V for Vendetta (both the comic and movie), The Fugitive (strangely enough), and most strongly with the film Equilibrium, in which Christian Bale's character goes through a very similar character arc, from blindly following orders, to questioning authority and seeing the bullshit underneath. Although Child 44 does it much better, of course.

Oh, and did I mention that there is a serial killer angle as well? That's actually the main thread of the novel, especially in the second half, with Leo and Raisa chasing leads while at the same time evading capture from the MGB. I don't want to write too much about it, because that would take up a lot more space, and I'd be giving away too many details. So look for this book, because apparently there's a sequel to Child 44 entitled The Secret Speech, if I'm not mistaken.

Next: a review of the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, and Super Spy, a graphic novel by Matt Kindt, sometime soon.

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