Poirot

Last week I attended the Guardian Book Club where author Sophie Hannah and literary critic John Mullan discussed Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

You may not know this already but I am a huge Agatha Christie fan. I discovered her mysteries when I stumbled upon a copy of Murder on the Links hidden away on a bookshelf in my grandfather’s house in Sri Lanka one hot summer. It probably belonged to one of my aunts and uncles but I took it with me when I left. I never learnt who it belonged to but I still have my well-thumbed copy and it still remains my favourite mystery to this day.

What is it about Christie’s novels that has ensnared millions of readers? For me, it was the sheer shock of finding the murderer was not who I expected. Stunned, I can still remember wondering how she managed to fool me. And with each novel, I would make a guess and get it wrong. Sometimes I couldn’t handle the tension and would take a furtive peek at the final pages which would inevitably spoil the rest of the novel for me but I just couldn’t help myself. And so my love affair with Christie began when I was nine and I went through her entire crime oeuvre, spending hours in English bookshops in far flung Asian cities counting the titles I had and hadn’t read, waiting for the special days when I was allowed to buy a book. Admittedly I did get better at guessing the murderer as I went through her novels but it was more a gut feeling. And once I got over that, I really began to enjoy her cast of characters and unraveling her fiendish plots.

So I was excited to hear Hannah’s views on Christie. Most of you will know by now that Hannah was chosen by Christie’s estate to write the new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, which was published last year . I, like many, was nervous about reading it but was completely won over by her intricate plotting and handling of Poirot. And I wasn’t surprised to learn that Hannah is on her third re-reading of Christie’s crime novels. Impressive stuff. She has a great love for Christie and her work, although she admits she is not as knowledgeable as John Curran, Christie’s archivist and author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, whom she would phone with questions when writing The Monogram Murders for which he would have instant answers.

For the Guardian Book Club, Hannah chose to discuss Death on the Nile partly because she wanted something different to the usual choice which is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, probably one of Christie’s most infamous novels, but also because it is one of the few that is successful in all mediums – book, tv and film. It is also one where you meet the characters going about their daily business before the actual murder occurs.

As much as they were bestsellers, I recall most notably in an English literature class at school that Christie’s novels were considered derivative and her characters two-dimensional, criticisms which still echo in genre fiction today. As young as I was, I did wonder why books you could race through weren’t considered serious literature however well written. It didn’t stop me reading or loving her novels, and when I re-read Elephants Can Remember a few years ago, I was surprised at how dark the plot was and how tightly written the prose. Hannah does point this out saying it’s an unfair label. She believes the characters need to appear to be two dimensional at first before the unveiling of the third dimension by the detective.

Christie’s strength lies in her interest in the psychology of crime especially how we assess others. She lets the readers mislead themselves and only at the unmasking do you realise your error in judgement. And one of the devices she uses in her novels is that a large proportion of her subjects are hiding something, all are guilty of something but perhaps not the murder. No one is perfect, everyone has a flaw. Christie is unparalleled in her understanding of character, human nature and psychology.

On accusations of stereotyping and stylised settings, Hannah does acknowledge that Christie recycles setting and plot devices but her tales are so interesting that readers don’t mind. A reader pointed out that The Murder on the Nile was somewhat similar to Endless Night and Mullan clocked on to a similar echo of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove which brought about a discussion on the limitations of plot. In some contemporary crime novels, the mystery isn’t enough to sustain the reader’s interest and so they pile on the bodies, but Christie doesn’t need to do this. However Hannah pointed out that Christie was fascinated by the possibilities of the crime novel and tried every possible permutation. She instinctively understood what every novel needed and was in total control. Christie is famous for being a meticulous planner before she put pen to paper and this can be seen in the very intricate way in which Christie manipulates her novels’ timelines. This was one aspect of the crime novel with which Hannah had difficulty and is also probably one of the reasons why she finds it so difficult to pinpoint Christie’s culprit.

For the serious mystery reader, the inability to guess the murderer is crucial. Christie overtly draws your attention to the clues, she is never sly or frugal in this, but still manages to fool you. You don’t know until the second Poirot or Miss Marple starts explaining who the murderer is. And she does this all the while increasing the tension bit by bit until you just have to know who did it.

The event ended with Hannah describing Miss Marple as a bit of a misanthrope and Poirot a romantic who liked to play cupid, often directing the attentions of a young lady away from a handsome rake to a slightly boring but more suitable man. Her favourite secondary character is Jane, Lady Edgware, in Lord Edgware Dies and one of her top ten favourite novels is After the Funeral as well as The Body in the Library which she says is flawless.

It was just a lovely evening to hear someone who loves Christie as much as I do talk about various aspects of her work and it has reawakened my urge to re-read some of Christie’s novels again as well as dip into John Curran’s books.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for Agatha Christie’s novels. If you have read them, which is your favourite mystery? And if you haven’t read any yet, which one would you like to start with?

Station Eleven

Longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction and winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award this year, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven seems to have blown through the literary world garnering praise from readers across genres. A dystopian novel featuring a travelling band of Shakespearean actors, what is it that made so many fall in love with this novel?

Set 20 years after a flu pandemic originating in Georgia and carried via air travel from the from the Caucasus decimated almost all life, there are still pockets of areas where people have survived and are adjusting to a new world without ready energy, access to communication or any of the mod cons that bolster modern life. It’s recent enough for many to have memories of what life was life before the pandemic but increasing numbers of the survivors are forgetting or have no memories at all.

Station Eleven goes back and forth from the dystopian present to the period just before the pandemic breaks out in the States and follows a cast of characters beginning with the tough as nails actress Kirsten who remembers her last night as a child actress working with the legendary Arthur Leander before he collapsed on stage and who treasures the copy of the comic book, Station Eleven, which he gave to her shortly beforehand. Having lost her family in the aftermath, she is picked up by The Travelling Symphony a few years later and never looked back. Then there is Jeevan, a trainee paramedic who was the first to realise Arthur was dying and tried to help him, the first also to get a call from his best friend, a doctor in A&E, who told him of the people coming in sick and who warned him to get out of town. And then there is Arthur and his three wives, Miranda who dreamt of creating a comic book, superseded by Elizabeth, an actress who went to live in Israel with their son and a third he was in the middle of divorcing. And Arthur’s best friend Clark who is on a flight when the pandemic breaks and becomes stranded in an airport in the middle of nowhere. All these characters play a part in this tale, strangers to each other but connected in the most spectacular way. And then there is the mysterious Prophet who emerges many years later, going from town to town, offering salvation through submission and violence. The Travelling Symphony must avoid him to survive yet this is becoming increasingly difficult, especially since it is almost inevitable that the small number of survivors will run into each other.

I’m still in two minds about this novel. In one, I feel that perhaps the dystopian elements in the novel weren’t as cleverly rendered as in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and felt a little simplistic. And yet, the spare manner in which the different parts of Mandel’s tale coalesce produce something that is remarkable. I can’t seem to get Station Eleven out of my mind. I’m not sure whether the fact that The Travelling Symphony puts on Shakespearean plays makes it more acceptable than a genre novel or whether genre is becoming mainstream, but somehow, the Shakespearean aspect of the book seems negligable just like the fictional comic book, Station Eleven. What remains is the horror and despair that won’t subside even after twenty years. The pandemic remains alive in the characters’ minds and they are still numb, surviving on autopilot. Station Eleven ultimately is a book about community, how you cannot survive without others. That even if you do survive, you will seek out others, just to know you aren’t going mad.

One of the things I loved about the book is the community that sprung up in the airport. It happened organically, naturally, as though there was no other way except to keep going. And even though you know that you can survive and adapt pretty quickly, the idea itself that power, electricity and all mod cons can just disappear so quickly is terrifying. More than the violence people can do to each other. That if you lose those things, the world is irrevocably changed.

Station Eleven turned out to be a haunting novel, although in ways I didn’t expect. Mandel’s imagery is vivid and remains branded in my mind, especially the hulks of the ships off Singapore where Miranda is sent on a business trip just as the pandemic breaks, ships built during the financial bubble but with nowhere to go, lit up to avoid collision, huge ghostly hulks in the sea. They reminded me very much of the prison ships in Dickens’ Great Expectations, vast and lonely. It’s such images that tug you suddenly back into the story.

Mandel doesn’t directly address the dissolute nature of modern society and yet the individual stories and crises that her characters face point to a modern world collapsing in on itself, as though the pandemic was a washing away of accumulated sin. It’s certainly the outlook the Prophet took.

Everything I Never Told You

Our book group choice for February was one I’d heard a lot of buzz about in the year past, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. I didn’t know much about the premise before I started but it’s one of those books that as soon as you start, you get that feeling, you know that it’s one that is going to stay with you. And I was right.

Everything I Never Told You is a tale of an ordinary family with just one difference; theirs is a mixed-race Chinese American family, the only one in their town. In a small college town in middle America, this one difference will simultaneously change and shape everyone and everything that happens to them. It is 1977 and 16 year old Lydia Lee has gone missing from her bed. Her parents James and Marilyn are trying to piece together the events of the days just before her disappearance, while her brother and sister, Nathan and Hannah, are not sure whether they should share the secrets so sacrosanct amongst siblings. When Lydia’s body is found in the nearby lake, their family life splinters as all they have believed in for so long is torn apart. Who was Lydia? And what happened to her?

What Ng is so adept at doing is teasing out the secrets and hidden yearnings of her characters. Like any family that looks outwardly normal, there will always be dreams that have been crushed and silenced, the reality often harsh and unforgiving. And it is no different here. James Lee is a tenured professor at a small college after his dreams of staying on at Harvard is so easily taken away from him. The son of Chinese immigrants who took jobs as a gardener and cook at a prestigious school to give their son the opportunity to secure a place to study there if he is bright enough, James only yearns for a normal American life and to fit in. And he finds this in Marilyn, who has never wanted to be pedestrian but who puts on hold her dream of becoming a doctor, to marry the man she unexpectedly falls in love with. They are so in love with each other, yearning to leave behind their unhappy childhoods that they do not see their past shaping the future of their three children, heavy with so much expectation and stifling with love. When Marilyn, unable to let go of her dream of becoming a doctor, runs away to finish her degree, this acts as a catalyst and irrevocably changes the family dynamic.

Ng’s subtle manipulation of the shifting dynamics within the Lee family is so masterfully done that it is only as you read on that it slowly dawns on you what has happened. The silent pressure on Lydia to achieve high grades in science so that she can fulfill her mother’s dream of becoming a doctor. The silent fear she has that if she doesn’t comply, her mother will leave her again. How Nath’s heart breaks a little every time his father sees a bit of himself in his son and looks disappointed. And Hannah, the youngest, always forgotten, learning not to be in the way. As the children grow and begin to chafe under the yoke of their parents expectations, their usually strong sibling ties fracture and they rebel. Nath will apply to Harvard, the only way to get his father to acknowledge his worth and as Lydia’s grades decline, she starts spending more time with Jack, their neighbour and Nath’s childhood enemy, to punish him. Each character deals with their hurt, humiliation and anger in such different ways, trying to push away and yet always returning because they are family. It is difficult to imagine the isolation and the segregation James and his children experience, the racism that is never fully overt and yet of which they are hyper-aware but Ng does this gently but with devastating effect. The disapproval of Marilyn’s mother which Marilyn so casually brushes aside but which pierces James’ heart at their wedding. The swallowed dreams, the claustrophobia of a small homogenous town, a child’s future that has been mapped out in concrete. It’s all there.

Ng manages to weave all the different strands of each character’s story, in and out from the past to the present without leaving the current nightmare of Lydia’s demise. And as each layer is peeled back, and you glimpse the anger, regret and hurt that has been experienced and suppressed, it is almost a miracle that each of them can survive the fallout of a loved one’s death.

However sad Everything I Never Told You is, Ng has created a novel of such tenderness. Her writing is gorgeous and yet spare but it reaches an emotional depth and complexity that you rarely find. It’s a beautiful book and probably one of the best I’ve read so far this year.

NW by Zadie Smith

20 April, 2015

NW

It’s been almost 15 years since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth blew her onto the literary scene as a major star-in-making. I’ve only read her debut and some of her short stories and essays, her observations and detailed commentary belying her tender years but there’s something so assured and sassy about her point of view and style, a mixture of the postmodern with traditional literature which just works. Reading NW, a grittier take on her depiction of northwest London, a dampening of youthful hope reminded me a lot of her peer, David Mitchell. Both have easy styles which belie their literary mastery. You know you are in the hands of true writer.

NW follows the almost mid-life crises of two best friends from the Caldwell Estate in Willesden, Leah Hanwell of Irish and Keisha Blake of Jamaican descent. It is a strong female friendship bound by memories and an understanding both don’t fully comprehend, surviving different ideologies, work ethic and interests. And like all friendships, it weathers choosing different career paths, lovers, marriage and babies.

We start with Leah, working for a charity, married to the man she loves but not wanting his babies. She sees her life drifting by, aimless, living just metres away from Caldwell Estate from which her mother Pauline so desperately tried to get away. They have escaped but not quite. And so she compares herself to Keisha, or Natalie, as she’s now known, a successful barrister married to an investment banker with two beautiful kids. She has penetrated far enough into the upper middle classes from Caldwell for even Leah to feel she no longer knows her friend. And yet there is a terrible ennui from which the two just can’t seem to escape. For Natalie, Leah is the one tumbling from one adventure into another, from her friends spouting philosophy to activism and the ubiquitous dreads. For Leah, Natalie has always focused on moving forward and making something of herself, stoic and resolute. And then there is Felix, thirty-something and finally taking the first steps towards turning his life around: a new relationship, the ‘One’. And poor Nathan, unable to claw his way out of the sink estate, destined to be the one lurking around the same old streets, his acquaintances keeping a wary distance.

Smith’s rendering of northwest London with its multicultural mix of peoples and lives is deftly done. Not much happens, what does is a slow lurch, seemingly unstoppable, of the fracturing of these thirty-somethings’ lives. Is this what it’s all about, seems to be the refrain running through this novel. It seems as though all the characters are caught by surprise at what life has in store for them, unable to grasp the happiness which is supposed to be within their reach. For both Leah and Keisha, their imposter syndrome is drowning out their current happiness, their families unable to understand them.

Overall, one wouldn’t label this a feelgood novel. There is a bittersweet inevitability to what happens to the characters even though you want to shake them by the shoulders and desperately slap them back to reality. But Smith subtly inserts moments of comedy and ordinariness which remind you of the absurdities of childhood and adolescence, the innocence and simplicity which we all seem to lose along the way. I can’t say I sympathised or even understood what these characters are going through, especially Keisha, and yet there is something about Smith’s writing that keeps you glued to the page. She writes beautifully and there is an immediacy, a relevance to her work that is rooted in the present. It’s a portrait of modern urban Britain, one that isn’t often portrayed in a lot of contemporary fiction, and because of this, it is refreshing.

Many in my reading group had issues with NW and I can see why. The novel is described as being about four friends but it’s really about Leah and Keisha. Felix and Nathan’s stories seem incidental although it does tie together a pretty loose arc. And it’s not a particularly easy read. However, I really enjoyed it, especially the scenes with Felix’ much older ex-lover in what reminded me of a Soho championed by Rupert Everett. And Smith’s writing is also a delight. So I now want to read The Autograph Book and On Beauty.

Do also check out out Kim’s review.

True Grit

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.

One of the main reasons I wanted to read True Grit by Charles Portis is that Donna Tartt has written an introduction about how much she loves the book. That alone would have pushed me to read a book in a genre I don’t normally reach out for but also serendipitously I found out my 8 year old nephew had borrowed the book off his best friend and now wanted to lend it to me. How could I say no?

Frank Ross, on a trip to buy horses, is shot by his employee Tom Chaney and robbed. When his daughter Mattie travels across Arkansas to claim her father’s body, she makes it her business to find Chaney and get justice for her father’s murder. For a fourteen year old, she has determination and savvy that reluctantly, and grudgingly, earns her respect. For she has set her sights on Rooster Cogburn, the meanest Federal marshal there is, to accompany her to find the fugitive who has fled into dangerous Indian territory. Mattie’s pursuit of a man with true grit who will help her find her father’s killer and the rough terrain and desperate men she must subdue in order to get her justice is recounted in a gloriously stark way by Portis who eschews sentimentality for an honest, gritty portrayal of the Wild West and the characters who populate it.

Portis’ novel surprised me in many ways. As well as the plot, which is a rather straightforward tale chronicling the hunt for justice, Portis throws in some fine characters and it is these people that Mattie encounters and her interactions with them that really bring out her character. Mattie and Rooster are brilliantly portrayed through their actions and dialogue. The latter, a grizzled bear of a man who spent his whole life amongst desperate men with nothing to lose and who is one himself. And yet there is a touching honesty to Rooster’s approach to life and others.

In negotiations with Mattie, he is matter of fact yet surprisingly playful,

‘If I’m going up against Ned Pepper I will need a hundred dollars. I have figured out that much. I will want fifty dollars in advance.’
‘You are trying to take advantage of me.’
‘I am giving you my children’s rate,’ he said.

It is exchanges like this that lifts what could be a grim tale into something a little more nuanced.

This is also in contrast to the Texas Ranger, Sergeant LaBoef (pronounced LaBeef) who is handsome and vain and who is also on the hunt for Chaney. He quickly colludes with Rooster, trying hard to prevent Mattie from joining them but Mattie is resolute and her doggedness wins her their grudging approval and soon the trio make their way across hostile Indian territory.

Mattie herself is a conservative, sober character, older than her years and yet with a naive view of the world where justice prevails and good and evil exist in stark contrast. It is her encounter with Rooster that gradually changes her perception of moral complexity. She is pedantic and often quotes from the Bible and yet she isn’t bound by conventional social rules, defying her mother and family lawyer’s wish that she return immediately for fear of her safety. In some ways, Portis’ portrayal of Mattie’s adventure resembles what we would probably expect in a conventional boy’s adventure. It’s certainly not what I expected for a girl of fourteen who is on the cusp of adulthood. The usual dangers one would expect didn’t really manifest or weren’t overtly stated. But it’s also one of the reasons why I loved True Grit. How rare is it to find such a strong character and one that is female?

Mattie went in search of Rooster Cogburn with the words,

They tell me you are a man with true grit.

But we end the story realising that it is Mattie herself who has true grit. The ending itself is not what I expected and perhaps that is also another reason why the story remains so vivid in my mind. True Grit is indeed a special book, something altogether quite rare. Although it’s been adapted onto the big screen a couple of times, I do urge you to read the book. The writing is stark but it brings Mattie alive.

I wanted to know what it was about True Grit that captivated Tartt and I think I found it. There is a semblance of Mattie Ross in Harriet Dufresnes, the protagonist of Tartt’s The Little Friend. Mattie is, of course, older and much stronger. But it has made me itch to re-read The Little Friend again and, perhaps, see it with new eyes. I’ll leave you with a quote from Tartt which beautifully captures what at some point we all feel when we encounter that special book.

It’s a commonplace to say that we ‘love’ a book, but when we say it, we really mean all sorts of things. Sometimes we mean only that we have read a book once and enjoyed it; sometimes we mean that a book was important to us in our youth, though we haven’t picked it up in years; sometimes what we ‘love’ is an impressionistic idea glimpsed from afar (Combray … madeleines …Tante Leonie …) as opposed to the experience of wallowing and plowing through an actual text, and all too often people claim to love books they haven’t read at all. Then there are the books we love so much that we read them every year or two, and know passages of them by heart; that cheer us when we are sick or sad and never fail to amuse us when we take them up at random; that we press on all our friends and acquaintances; and to which we return again and again with undimmed enthusiasm over the course of a lifetime. I think it goes without saying that most books that engage readers on this very high level are masterpieces; and this is why I believe that True Grit by Charles Portis is a masterpiece.

Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith

30 March, 2015

Agent 6

From the perspective of the secret police concealing a diary was a crime regardless of its content. It was an attempt to separate a citizen’s public and private life, when no such gap existed.

And so we come to the concluding volume in Tom Rob Smith’s Soviet trilogy featuring ex-MGB operative Leo Demidov which began with Child 44 and continued in The Secret Speech. Agent 6 takes up the tale several years after The Secret Speech. It is 1965 and Raisa, now a headmistress and on the government’s education board has been given the task of taking a select group of pupils to the United States as a gesture of dialogue between the two conflicting countries. But she is under strict orders to maintain all proper guidelines as anything untoward will affect the world’s view of the USSR. Naturally Leo is unhappy with this, afraid that once Raisa and their daughters, who are accompanying her, leave Russia something will go wrong and he’ll never see them again. And even more so when he discovers his younger daughter Elena’s diary which has been secreted away in their flat. He has a bad feeling about all of this and his instincts are never wrong.

And so Leo is once again caught in history’s talons, his destiny controlled by others. When the trip to the States ends in catastrophe, Leo once again finds himself on the wrong side of the State but this time he is out for revenge. No matter what happens, he is determined to get to the bottom of the events which tore apart his family and the people who orchestrated them.

It is several years before Leo comes even close to finding out what happened in the States, but he never gives up. He re-enlists in the army and goes to Afghanistan, trying to forget his pain all the while planning on his next move while trying to keep his family safe. Smith interweaves Leo’s present barren predicament with short, sharp vignettes from his past. From his early career as an MGB agent to his first meeting with Raisa and later life in Kabul in the 1980s, Agent 6 presents a wide sweep of Soviet history and the shifting political landscape including the prevalence of McCarthyism in the States. Even in two such ideologically different countries, Smith skillfully shows how the methods of intimidation and relentless persecution don’t differ that much. Leo is a child of Stalinist Russia and his inherent paranoia and instinct for survival will never disappear. As much as Agent 6 is a novel of betrayal and revenge, it is also one of love and loss.

Introducing the character of Jesse Austin, a famous black American jazz singer who is a vocal supporter of Communism, gives Smith an opportunity to show how Communism was perceived in the States and the ways in which the Soviets tried to exploit their most loyal overseas supporters. The scenes in which a young Leo is ordered to look after Austin on his visit to Moscow in the 1950s, how everything from his meeting with workers to a visit to the grocery store is orchestrated is almost comical if you can dismiss the consequences of anything going wrong. Austin’s subsequent persecution back in his own country is heartbreaking but is also a testament to the many victims of McCarthyism in the 1960s.

I wasn’t sure how Smith was going to top Child 44 and The Secret Speech, having crammed so much into both novels from politics to human nature. In Agent 6, he takes Leo’s story outside the USSR to New York and Kabul and the rise of the Taliban, although in hindsight, the career trajectory of an ex-Soviet agent is probably pretty limited. However, I’m not sure how successful this novel is compared to the previous two and how overall satisfying the ending is, although it’s probably the most realistic which, contrarily, is something I really liked about the novel. Perhaps Smith’s strength lies in his depiction of Soviet Russia, which he brings to life in all its frosty glory and paranoia.

But the characters of Leo and Raisa are firmly entrenched and you can only continue reading to find out what happens to them and their family. The trilogy, although slightly uneven, is a triumph.

Secret Speech

She’d justified teaching such falsehoods since it was necessary that her students learn the language of adulation, the vocabulary of State worship without which they’d be vulnerable to suspicion.

Tom Rob Smith’s The Secret Speech follows on from his searing debut Child 44 and is set seven years after the life-changing events that sent former MGB agent Leo Demidov and his wife Raisa on the run and to the brink of death and back. Leo now oversees the newly minted Homicide Department together with his partner Timur, who previously helped Leo as a fugitive, and Raisa is back teaching. Together with two traumatised orphan sisters whom Leo and Raisa have adopted, they are slowly rebuilding their fractured lives.

But once again Leo is thrust into the glare of the Soviet government when ex-members of the MGB start turning up dead, all found with a page of a supposedly secret speech Khruschev is rumoured to be giving, a speech so explosive it will overturn the USSR as they know it and the lives of all of its loyal citizens. Retribution is coming and people are afraid. Without having access to this speech and when they do get a copy, tainted, both Leo and Raisa must navigate the treacherous path that binds their lives to that of the State. For the State knows everything and will do anything to control you. Even if it means you must renounce your previous beliefs.

Smith is a master at cranking up the tension and paranoia as he did in Child 44. The happiness Leo and Raisa have finally attained is brief before they are thrust into danger once again. And this time, they have two young, vulnerable girls to protect. As both Leo’s and Raisa’s pasts come back to haunt them, they increasingly risk losing the love of their elder daughter Zoya, who cannot forgive Leo for her parents’ deaths. With a teenager bent on anarchism to control, Leo needs to once again rely on his skills as well as those of his family to protect them all. Because he has also been sent a page from the secret speech signalling that whoever is behind the lynching is after him too.

This time, Smith delves into the underground world of the Soviet gangs forged in the Siberian Gulags, the vory, and their wrathful leader bent on revenge. As well as terrifying descriptions of the huge prison ships transporting prisoners to the Gulags, he is also adept at bringing to life the fervour and naïveté of young revolutionaries, brainwashed and who want to overthrow the USSR in the annexed states on the edges of Russia. With enemies all around him who would do anything to hurt his family, can Leo save them?

I loved this as much as I loved Child 44. Leo is still a very interesting character, trying so hard to change and earn the love of Raisa who he knows is prepared to do whatever it takes to protect their children, even if it means letting go of him. But the one thing you know about Leo is that he never gives up. He’s like a Soviet era Jason Bourne but with a little more feeling. And what can I say about Raisa? I love her character. She’s strong, resilient and is as much of a survivor as Leo. Smith has created a truly independent and intelligent character in Raisa who would do anything to protect her loved ones. Leo is led by instinct but it is Raisa who uses her brain. And no one character is easy or one dimensional in this novel, especially Zoya, Leo and Raisa’s eldest daughter, so full of anger and grief that she cannot see through the choices she makes, only it’s immediacy, how it would hurt Leo. And she does this admirably. It seems Leo is destined to be surrounded by strong women he cannot control.

There is a lot of history and politics packed into The Secret Speech but the engaging and immediacy of Smith’s prose will keep you turning the pages. Read it! But only after you’ve read Child 44.

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