“Stalin’s Soviet Union is an official paradise, where citizens live free from crime and fear only one thing: the all-powerful state. Defending this system is idealistic security officer Leo Demidov, a war hero who believes in the iron fist of the law. But when a murderer starts to kill at will and Leo dares to investigate, the State’s obedient servant finds himself demoted and exiled. Now, with only his wife at his side, Leo must fight to uncover shocking truths about a killer — and a country — where “crime” doesn’t exist.” (tomrobsmith.com)
“Since Maria had decided to die, her cat would have to fend for itself.” So begins Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, and so began my enthrallment with the book. I actually read that line and then immediately closed the book because I couldn’t get over how good it was. So many questions were raised by that one sentence, but I managed to push through this initial little thrill and read the rest of the book. I’d been looking forward to reading it for ages, so I was worried I’d set my expectations too high and it wouldn’t live up to them, but thankfully it met and then exceeded my expectations and has set Tom Rob Smith on an upwards trajectory on my list of favourite writers.
This book popped up on my radar when I saw that two of my favourite actors, Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman, were starring in a film adaptation of it (they were also both in my favourite film, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which was adapted from the John le Carré novel of the same name). After some investigating (Googling) I knew I had to read it before I saw the movie. I was so intrigued by the the idea of crime officially not existing, that it was a symptom of a capitalist culture, and therefore not possible in the equality of the Communist State. Which begs the question: How can you solve a crime that according to the State, can’t possibly have been committed?
Although my interest was initially piqued by the whole idea of crime not existing, it was the characters in this novel I loved the most, particularly Leo Demidov. In the early stages of the book he reminded me of a trained bird of prey like those used for falconry: hunting whoever he was told to hunt, and only free for as long as those who control him kept the hood from his eyes. It was interesting to watch him develop as events unfolded, his initial self-imposed blind obedience gradually dissipating as he began to truly think for himself. His wife, Raisa, was another creature entirely. Her obedience to her country is instilled by fear, but I think it was this fear that made her such a strong female character – her fear pushed her on and made her do whatever was necessary to survive. These two characters were an interesting contrast, and seemingly represented the differences between the Soviet citizens: the fear of the downtrodden general public, and the overwhelming power of the government.
All in all, I clearly loved this novel. It has great characters, a great plot, and plenty of suspense. There’s a Q&A with Tom Rob Smith at the end, in which he says he wanted to write “a book you could get wrapped up in”. In my opinion that’s exactly what he has written. In the same way that John le Carré leaves a trail of loose threads through his novels and doesn’t pull them all together until the very end, Smith leaves hints scattered through Child 44 – it’s like putting together a jigsaw without the picture for a guide, but you persevere until the image starts to become clear, and even then there are a few odd pieces thrown in that will throw you off. Never does the outcome seem certain, and it’s this that will keep you reading until the puzzle is complete.
WHO YOU’LL LOVE – Leo Demidov is by far one of the best constructed characters I’ve read in a long time. I really enjoyed watching him develop over the four hundred and something pages.
WHO SHOULD READ IT – Fans of John le Carré should definitely read this (if you haven’t already). I’ve also seen comparisons to Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, which I’ve not read but did watch the film on the weekend, and I can see how comparisons would be made. So I guess if you’ve read that book and/or seen the film, you’d probably enjoy Child 44 as well.
FAVOURITE QUOTE – Aside from the opening line? Probably this one: “He hadn’t asked any questions: it was a path laid down by his superiors and he’d walked it, head held high. His country could have asked anything of him and he would’ve readily agreed. He would’ve run Gulags in the Arctic tundra of the Kolyma region had they asked him. His only ambition was a general one: to serve his country, a country that had defeated Fascism, a country that provided free education and healthcare, that trumpeted the rights of the workers around the world, that paid his father – a munitions worker on an assembly line – a salary comparable to that of a fully qualified doctor.”