Saturday, March 28, 2009

Totalitarian Reads Part 2

Self-nominated minute-taker KayKay put a lovely write up of our book club discussion of Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 on our e-group, and I hope I don't mind if I share it with all of you. (He also reviewed the novel for The Star.) :
As I sit and write this, buoyed by generous lashings of wine and sated with multiple helpings of string hoppers with delicious "sodhi" and chicken curry, I keep thinking if a thriller is an apt choice for a book club discussion. After all, as a genre, it is severely restrictive in the sense of what it needs to accomplish. It MUST thrill, pure and simple. Fancy wordplay, fleshed out characters and atmospherics, those tropes favoured for lengthy dissertations, are in a thriller, purely secondary to it's ability to keep the readers hooked to a plot that, out of necessity, must be breathlessly exciting, pacy and preferably twisty with multiple reversals before a riveting denouement that ties up all loose ends.

Looking at my jottings of the various opinions put forth in our as usual febrile discussions of Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, one common factor that stands out is that it's not an especially well written book, making it's inclusion in a Booker Long-List that much more puzzling. As writers like James Lee Burke, John Connolly and Thomas Harris ably demonstrate, good writing needn't be concomitant to an engaging plot. So why this book over other far superior ones made the Booker long list cut?

As Sham (in her book club swan song) pointed out in a summation reeking of contempt, lots of things happen in this book, and she longed for it to happen in a better written one. Ditto Uma and Jessica who felt the writing was contrived.

As someone who devours thrillers (I average one every fortnight) it now comes to a point where unless a skilled hand is behind the telling, I can usually see a twist coming a mile off, as I did here, echoed by Diana (our new member) who didn't find it engrossing in the least and found the ending a little too pat.

Sharon took issue with the multiple points of view on display in this book while Alina felt the violence very dark and gratuitous (although I must interject here and say this is pretty much de rigueur for most thrillers being written today) and the book's tone hollow while finding Smith's depiction of an oppressive regime anything but compelling.

In addition to being a lovely host, thanks to Alison for pointing out the "gay" sub-text in Child 44 (Vasily's obsession with Leo, persecution of homosexuals etc), something my all but dormant "Gay"dar would never have picked up (I frequently pause in typing this to slap my forehead).

Taj and Alice probably encapsulate my thoughts best in finding the book a thoroughly entertaining read with nary a wasted word. It has a gruesome beginning, engrossing middle and a twisty end with doors left wide open for a sequel.

I pride myself on soundbites, but it's Sharon who delivered the best one for the night; after the constipation of overtly literate books, this au fait airport thriller debut from Tom Rob Smith is a perfect laxative:-)
I am actually missing Child 44 now I've finished it. It was such a lovely easy romp of a read - just what I need at the moment - and the dramatic tension never flags. It should emphatically not have been Booker longlisted even, because it really isn't literary fiction. (Though if it hadn't been nominated, would I have read it?)

But I did very much enjoy it as a thriller, and was even able to forgive the improbable workings of the plot. It would be the ideal read for a very long flight, and I expect to see a really good film made from it soon. (KayKay says Ridley Scott is on the case.)

Here's Tim Rob Smith reading from and talking about the book :



Incidentally, the next read the group has decided on (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) also takes place - at least partly, under a very oppressive regime, in a climate of fear - this time in The Dominican Republic so there is still no escaping this accidental theme that seems to have wrapped itself around us.

10 comments:

Yvonne Foong said...

John sent me the book last year. Child 44 was the best action thriller I've ever read. Although at some points I felt a little numbed. The only thing I didn't understand was how Leo's superior (I forgot his name)The one who decided to help Leo figure out the mysterious dead children, and help me figure out who the killer was. I found his sudden change of behavior hard to believe. This guy was at first trying to protect his position and job, unwillingly to question anything.He would even accuse all the homosexuals just to get that case off his back. will a person like him turn over and become righteous overnight? hard to believe.

Anonymous said...

It wasn't a sudden change, really. He only helped out of selfish reasons -- he feared for the safety of his own children.

Yvonne Foong said...

By helping out, their safety was threatened by the MGB which he had feared all along. Hmmm... makes me wonder.

Damyanti said...

Must add this to my reading list. Given current workload, this is just the kind of book I need.

Anonymous said...

Well, a system like communism can only work when the people who enforce the law are fanatical in their self-righteous beliefs. "Better to let 10 innocent men suffer than one spy escape." That credo justifies the imprisonment, torture and murder of anyone at any time. Yes, this man was willing to destroy homosexuals, because he believed homosexuals offered nothing for the future of the Soviet Union. However, children were another matter altogether. Children were the future of the USSR, and yet, the state apparatus was unable or unwilling to protect them. That shattered his belief in the system and prompted him to help.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous -- you're describing totalitarianism, not communism. There have been capitalist totalitarian regimes (think Pinochet), just as there've been communist ones like the USSR. Conversely, lots of democracies lean very heavily towards the socalist/communist side, as do numerous religious orders: Benedictine monks, Carmelite nuns, etc. etc. Economics has little to do with the choice between totalitarianism and democracy.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Communism is an extreme form of socialism, just as fascism is an extreme form of capitalism. Communism, by its very nature, not only demands, but requires totalitarianism. Ultimately, economics has everything to do with whether you get a democracy or a totalitarian state. For example, if you have a country that is obsessed with producing and operating a single variety of car, then you will have no choice to forcibly and violently organise your labour and production to meet that requirement. On an academic level, I don't believe socialism and communism should not be equated to one another. One exists to serve the common worker, while the other exists to serve the state.

Anonymous said...

Truthfully, there has never been and never will be a democratic state that leans towards the communist side of things. Democracy and communism are simply incompatible. Communism relies upon a fixed and limited basket of goods organised and controlled by a central government. All labour and production must be forcibly geared in that direction. Even in the most socialist of countries (the Scandinavian region comes to mind), free market capitalism is alive and well. Citizens are free to sell and buy a seemingly infinite basket of goods and labour without excessive intervention from the government. The point is, socialism augments democracy, while communism subverts it.

Anonymous said...

It's simply incorrect to say that there's never been a democratic state that *leans towards* the communist side of things! There's never been a democractic state that practices either *pure* communism OR *pure* capitalism. Sweden and Norway lean very heavily towards socialism, although both maintain some aspects of the free market. And even in as capitalist country as the US, everything most people think of as "progress" -- the minimum wage, social security, the abolition of slave labour, etc. -- in fact involves constraints on the free market. Socialism is not an on/off switch, and neither is capitalism -- it's important to recognise that what you think of as capitalist democracy in fact incorporates heavy doses of socialism across the spectrum (from the US to Scandinavia to India).

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

"Conversely, lots of democracies lean very heavily towards the socalist/communist side..." Ah, yes. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea comes to mind.