I was a huge fan of Tom Rob Smith's debut novel, Child 44. I thought it was a great suspense novel, doing just about everything right.
That's why I was horribly crushed when I read this book, and found that it did just about everything wrong, from the book blurb to the pacing to the dialog, particularly the internal monologues.
Generally speaking, I don't tend to write about books I did not care for, as I only have a certain amount of time to write, and why talk about things you don't think others should read? But in this case, I'm making an exception because I really had a lot of strong thoughts on this one, driven primarily by my disappointment, given Child 44 was one of my favorite books from a few years ago.
Let's start with the book blurb and the problems it creates for the book itself. The blurb spoils all sense of surprise by stating baldly that Leo's family is "destroyed" and he must seek revenge. Way to spoil things for me--and anyone else reading it. Now there's no surprise involved in what's going to happen--a major part of a suspense novel. I'm not in suspense anymore, because I know that Leo's going to be driven by a tragedy.
If you're going to do that, fine, but that means it's essential that the book get to that point and show Leo, the protagonist, on a mad revenge spree that takes up the majority of the book.
Unfortunately, that's not what happens. The tragedy is withheld until almost halfway through the book, leaving the characters as dead people walking. I kept waiting for something, anything to happen, and was disappointed over and over again. By the time the tragedy does happen, it's underplayed, with almost no drama involved. It was about as matter of fact as giving the weather, and while I was sad for the characters involved, I wasn't given a body blow.
What took so long? Well, in what became a disturbing trend for the book, Smith opts to spend pages upon pages to give his political spin on the politics in both Russia and the United States during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Unlike in Child 44, where these moments were tied crucially to what was happening in the narrative, such as trying to hide in the shadows of the Soviet State or the desire to avoid actual crime, this book goes off on tangents again and again. I don't think a dissertation on the racist, homophobic, and classist nature of Hoover's FBI added anything to the book, especially since there's no payoff for it. A short passage, sure. But pages and pages of comments and examples? This happens over and over in the first section of the book, and it really dulled the impact of the action.
I had high hopes once we got to the main event, as Leo was proven to be a character of great resolve. Time to see him break a conspiracy to the State--and his family!--one more time.
Instead, Smith makes one of the worst mistakes an author can do--he tells instead of shows. Leo's post-tragedy actions are either glossed over or given a short flashback piece, and the next thing we know, he's a drug-addled fop living off his reputation in Afghanistan. How did he come to this? What broke him? That's only worth a few dozen pages, because instead Smith needs to describe in detail the problems of Soviet-controlled Afghanistan so he can beat the reader over the head with a comparison to the situation in the troubled nation today. It's obvious that Smith thinks that being in Afghanistan is wrong, but instead of using his name to write a non-fiction book or essays, he's thinly disguised his opinion in this narrative, dragging it down even further.
As we stop by every bullet point Smith wants to hit in his tour of Afghanistan, Leo is pushed to the side in favor of a paper-thin antagonist in the form of a ruthless Soviet Captain and a young Afghan woman who gives up her family for the Communist cause. They talk about everything from the difficulty of an occupation to killing civilians to the major misogyny of a society where woman are treated poorly, even when they could serve as a national rallying cry. We get this instead of, say, Leo's daring attempt to escape the Soviet Union or his search for the man who deceived his adoptive daughter.
Long paragraphs about religious fervor or the deadly determination of those using terror to take their country back are far more interesting that the intrigue of slipping across a border, you see.
The topper for this is that when we do get any action sequences, Leo's barely involved. He might get a few good lines here and there, but most of it is instinct, not daring do, as we saw before. I get that Leo's supposed to be a broken man, but because we didn't *see* the break, I'm not impressed or in agreement. This isn't Leo for me, this is some other man. Had Smith taken the time to show me why Leo is so impotent, I might have swallowed it better, but the few lines thrown in and the sketchy backstory didn't do it for me. As a result, I'm left waiting and waiting for Leo to show himself.
The whole Afghanistan sequence is a big political screed that seems to paint most of Afghanistan as a country best left alone to its fanatics (there are no moderates shown, as the outliers are all quickly killed or given flimsy reasons like love for their challenging the accepted paradigms), as though the people there could never be as good as Westerners. In trying to show why fighting in Afghanistan is a bad idea, Smith makes the people there seem like savages. It's really sad, actually, because I don't think that was the intent. However, I don't see anything that counters that view of the Afghan people.
Through a huge coincidence, we get Leo back to America for the climax of the story. He's a bit better here, being devious and active again, and back on track. Leo turns over every rock he can to get to the truth of the tragedy, once and for all. The key is a character we saw early on, which is a good sign. I was ready for the big finish...except it wasn't.
In the end, the tragedy's payoff is that it's so minor. Something so important to Leo has almost no value to the State or anyone else. He and his family are just one more statistic, which I could have accepted, except that it took so long to get there, having the ending peter out like this, with Leo getting answers but not satisfaction, really bothered me. I needed it to be huge, to justify all the pages of padding we got to get there. Instead, I had an answer that really did not require most of the hundreds of pages to tell. Almost all of it--including the entire Afghanistan digression--was unnecessary, because the truth was already told.
By the end of the story, Leo is defeated, his last card played. He limps to the finish, in chains, at the mercy of those who have no need to show it. It's a metaphor for the book itself, which meanders across the world but never manages to excite the reader. The book doesn't really finish, it ends. Neither Leo nor I am entirely happy with what's at the end of this road, and that's a big problem for me as a reader. I should be feeling like I had a big payoff, but instead, I just felt cheated. The only suspense was "When is this over?" and had I not committed myself too far by the time I got to the tragedy, I'd have given up on this one and probably been the better for it.
I highly recommend Child 44, but stay far away from this extremely political book that has a loose story around it. Regardless of my agreement with Smith's views on racial and class issues, a book of fiction must stand on its own merits as a story. This one falls on its face, as futile as Leo's life becomes for the bulk of the story. A suspense novel needs to keep me guessing and keep me on the edge of my seat. This one had me frustrated, bored, and angry. I though I had a new author to follow but after this, I think I will pass. You should, too.