Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Book Review) ~ BitterSweetLife

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Book Review)

Child 44 is the first serial killer/ spy novel set in Communist Russia that I've ever read. And, coincidentally, Child 44 is the first book (of any kind) that Tom Rob Smith has ever written. Both facts are somewhat amazing.

On the first count, I'm not a huge consumer of spy novels, but I've read enough of them that the odds of my having come this far without spending time in Communist Russia were pretty slim. On the second count, despite its dark and occasionally horrific subject matter, Child 44 is a remarkable first novel.

I say that with mixed feelings, because I probably wouldn't read the book a second time, given that the serial killer's victims are children (based loosely on historical events). Despite the fact that the book is plot-driven and not character-driven, thinking about murdered children isn't really something I choose to do in my leisure time. If you can put that awful element of the book aside, Child 44 has plenty to offer.

Heading the list of admirable qualities is the way that Tom Rob Smith seems to summon up a sometimes-forgotten history. Communist Russia comes alive as we're shown its inner workings and breath an atmosphere of frigid utilitarianism and bleak hopelessness. This evocation of atmosphere is powerful, troubling, and hard to forget.

Next is the unique plot mechanism that also serves as a central, paradoxical theme in Child 44: How does one go about pursuing justice in a country where crime does not officially exist? Before evil can be defeated, it's existence must be acknowledged. But in Communist Russia, to acknowledge the fact of insidious, deliberate sin was equivalent to accusing the system of failure--pointing out that Lenin was a nude emperor--itself a fatal transgression.

Finally, Smith's writing is effective if not eloquent. No one will mistake Child 44 for a masterpiece of prose literature or a keen character study. You'll remember the story's setting and plot, not the names of its protagonists. But Smith is a solid, if workmanlike, author.

* - ** I'm debating how to rate Child 44. Grisly detail about a serial killer who targets children will keep this from being a "wonderful" or "favorite" book for most people--which could warrant a single star: it has its points. But the book's concept, atmosphere, and pacing are deserving of two stars: well worth your time. Based on this review, I'll let you pick your own rating.

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Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife