Reviewed by L.D.Y.
Hardcover, 439 pages, 2008
Reason for Reading: Always happy to try out a new thriller author – especially one who had a big-name director (Ridley Scott, American Gangster) attached to the movie adaptation a year before his debut novel was even in stores.
Synopsis: It’s hard for atrocities to stand out in Stalin’s brutal Russian regime during the 1950s – everyone is a potential enemy of the state, and men, women, and children are routinely rounded up and killed with no more than the fear-induced pointing of a finger. But staunch supporter of the regime, Leo Demidov, has found something that may stand out as horrific even amongst his own brutalities: the possibility of a serial killer who focuses only on children. The problem? According to the ideologies of Stalin, there is no crime, and all efforts to investigate the killings make Leo a rebel and betrayer of state policies. In order to pursue a criminal, he must become one, endangering his life and those of his family…
Why you should read this book: It’s hard to find a thriller that will leave you gasping and genuinely shocked from chapter to chapter, which means Child 44 is elevated to ‘gem’ status by also throwing in history and a touch of politics to create nothing short of magic. It’s smart, has wonderfully complex characters, feels utterly real, and does that most important thing you want from a thriller: instills the sense of urgency that makes finishing the next 400 pages more important than eating and social interaction. I may even be a little terrified that this is only Smith’s first novel, but mostly I’m just thrilled at the prospect that this is only the start of an amazing writing career (and on a more selfish note, hopefully the first of many intensely thrilling novels for me to read). Absolutely do not miss this one.
Why you should avoid this book: Graphic torture and murder scenes will have you cringing, but they’re necessary to understand the brutal police state that left millions dead and everyone else in a near-constant state of fear, desperate to survive.
Since Maria had decided to die her cat would have to fend for itself. She’d already cared for it far beyond the point where keeping a pet made sense. Rats and mice had long since been trapped and eaten by the villagers. Domestic animals had disappeared shortly after that. All except for one, this cat, her companion which she’d kept hidden. Why hadn’t she killed it? She needed something to live for; something to protect and love – something to survive for. She’d made a promise to herself to continue feeding it up until the day she could no longer feed herself. That day was today. She’d already cut her leather boots into thin strips, boiled them with nettles and beetroot seeds. She’d already dug for earthworms, sucked on bark. This morning in a feverish delirium she’d gnawed the leg of her kitchen stool, chewed and chewed until there were splinters jutting out of her gums. Upon seeing her the cat had run away, hiding under the bed, refusing to show itself even as she knelt down, calling its name, trying to coax it out. That had been the moment Maria decided to die, with nothing to eat and nothing to love.
The neighbors were a retired couple in their seventies who lived with their married son, his wife, and their two children. A family of six in two rooms, not an unusual ratio. All six of them were sitting in their kitchen side by side with a junior officer standing behind them for the purpose of intimidation. Leo could see that they understood that they were all implicated in another man’s guilt. He could see their fear. Dismissing this observation as irrelevant – he’d been guilty of sentimentality once already – he walked up to the table:
-Anatoly Brodsky is a traitor. If you help him in any way even by saying nothing you will be treated as an accomplice. The pressure is on you to prove your loyalty to the State. There is no pressure on us to prove your guilt. That, right now, is taken for granted.
Raisa got off the train, stepping down onto the platform and making her way toward the exit. She wasn’t going home. Leo didn’t know where she was going. To follow her would expose her to the scrutiny of the second agent. Not to follow her would put his life in jeopardy. He had to choose.
Also recommended: The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer; The Hidden Assassins by Robert Wilson.
Also by this author: Child 44 is Smith’s first novel.
Fun tidbit: Smith got a job writing for daytime soaps shortly after graduating from Cambridge.
Would I read more by this author? It will use up a lot of my patience waiting for Smith’s second novel.
© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2008