Economist editor Miller makes his fiction debut with a bleak tale of fraud and manipulation in early-21st-century Moscow.
The unbridled mayhem of the 1990s has died down a bit, but Western companies are still pouring money into the hands of newly minted Russian conglomerates, and British lawyer Nicholas Platt is writing the contracts. Meanwhile, he’s enjoying the louche pleasures of Moscow nightlife. He’s also enjoying the company of Masha and her sister Katya—well, actually they’re not sisters—and Tatiana Vladimirovna, the old lady they introduce as their aunt, who isn’t a relative either. But by the time Nicholas finds that out, he’s enmeshed in a scheme whereby Tatiana will swap her apartment in the center of Moscow for new suburban digs and $50,000 in cash. The scheme is as obviously phony as the deal Nicholas is brokering between a consortium of banks and a Cossack who purports to be fronting for a company that will build “a floating oil terminal somewhere up in the Barents Sea,” and Nicholas’s narrative, addressed to his wife-to-be back in London, makes it clear that he more or less knew it from the start. A protagonist’s willed blindness can be a strong premise (as in Jane Smiley’s Good Faith, 2003), if the author makes palpable the reasons for such self-deception. Sex with Masha, a decidedly down-market temptress, just doesn’t seem motive enough. Miller, formerly a Moscow correspondent for Economist, vividly evokes the no-holds-barred atmosphere of the city in its early-capitalist stage, but it’s seedy rather than alluring, and as Nicholas deliberately ignores glaring signs that he’s being conned, readers may well find him stupid rather than tragically deluded. Depressive asides to his English fiancée reinforce our feeling that he deserves the comeuppance he gets.
Good local color, but nothing much to care about here.