Review: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Child 44
After weeks in solitary
I’m forced to give it:
4 out of 5 Stars

My version:
Paperback
Historical fiction, thriller.
Simon & Schuster
2008
Bought From The Book Depository

Under Stalin’s terrifying regime families live in fear. When the all-powerful State claims there is no such thing as crime, who dares disagree?

An ambitious secret police officer, Leo Demidov has spent his career arresting anyone who steps out of line. Suddenly his world is turned upside down when he uncovers evidence of a killer at large. Now, with only his wife at his side, Leo must risk both their lives to save the lives of others.

Inspired by a real-life investigation, Child 44 is a relentless story of love, hope and bravery in a totalitarian world. It is a thriller unlike any you have ever read.

It’s going to be cool for some people to sneer at a novel as popular as this. Mainly those – you know them – who will always sneer at a novel that sells by the lorry-load. Writers aren’t meant to be successful, aren’t meant to earn more money that them. Even if they’ve bought the book before it sells by the shed-load, they’re still going to sneer at ‘the masses’ who have bought it. You know it. Especially if they’ve heard the filmed, cash-in version, was (supposed to be) pretty poor. They’re probably going to think Da Vinci Code or something and ignore it. They’d be wrong. They’d be missing out. Child 44 (the book) is actually very good. As was The Da Vinci Code – you know it too. I bought Child 44, because I bought The Secret Speech for a snip some time ago, thinking that was a one-off, then noticed that this seems to be the first book in a series about the character Leo Demidov and Soviet Russia under Stalin.

And ‘under Stalin,’ is about right. They were all under Stalin’s maniacal, paranoid, despotic, dictatorial, criminal heel. If you’ve got anything about you, if you’ve been awake at any time in the last 100 years, you’ll know what I’m on about.

It is a very dark, very bleak, even depressing journey Leo Demidov and Tom Rob Smith takes us on. You are glad sometimes (despite all the ‘can’t put it down’ stuff), to look up, look around, and thank all that is holy, it isn’t you in the USSR in the ’50’s. Truth is turned on its head – and while still being soundly based on the history – it sure gives an author the potential for all sorts of plot twists and turns that often tie logic up in knots. But this sort of thing happened. The perils of just trying to stay unnoticed and alive are very nicely stated and you’re left to do the horror lifting yourself, which I liked a lot. It is unrelenting stuff, though you are ‘rewarded’ for being with Leo on his downward journey, with a couple of ‘in your face! moments. Always good. Maybe I was looking for something and found something that wasn’t there, but I thought a couple of times, that actually, Leo’s wife, Raisa also represented Russia/The Soviet Union. His relationship with her, his hopes and fears for their relationship, are the same as those he has for the USSR.

Reading the copy on the back, it does make me wonder why it was so successful? 2 million-odd sales, they say. Who bought it and why? Misery seekers, or people buying it because 2,000,000-odd others bought it? It is, however you look at it, an unlikely recipe for a runaway best seller. Though, maybe we need more of them? Is there a message for today, as we’re going more and more towards a ‘for our own good,’ ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about,’ surveillance society? With the cameras and telephone monitoring and the NSA and all that? I’m not sure. Though, if there is – and you really don’t need to be a particularly intelligent person to read this and see how it can all go wrong, especially with concentrating power so much in the hands of one person – it’s the same as George Orwell’s 1984. Though I’d say more people would read this book, than 1984. So maybe more people will sit up and take notice.

In terms of Soviet-bleakness, of the novels I have read that are set in this period, the ones that come closest in terms of unrelenting look over your shoulder, try to double-guess them first, bleakness, are the William Ryan Captain Korolev books. And they’re very good indeed.

It’s not really a book you can (or perhaps should?) say you ‘enjoyed’ as that would surely suggest you enjoy other people’s suffering. The level of suffering, malicious, psychopathic, intentional suffering detailed here, is staggering. It is hard to believe, that humans, countrymen, could treat each other in this way. But they did. From the little I know of it, there’s no reason not to believe it was like this. I feel sure you’ll get out of it both what you bring to it, in terms of knowledge about the period, and what you put in, in terms of looking for a message. I thought it worked very well on several levels, though sure felt better for having finished it.

 

Buy Child 44 from The Book Depository

Other reviews:
William Ryan: The Holy Thief
William Ryan: The Bloody Meadow

Me, on Goodreads

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