Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Hardcover: 448 pages
· Publisher: Grand Central Publishing, 2008
· Price: $24.99
· ISBN-10: 0446402389
· ISBN-13: 978-0446402385

If it weren't for the Soviet Union and the blood lust of the Russian communists, I would not exist. My parents were World War II refugees, on the run for their lives from Soviet-occupied Latvia. They arrived in the United States at about the same time, immigrants with nothing but what they wore on their backs, with the most skeletal English language skills. Had they not spotted each other across the room of immigrants and felt drawn one to the other, well, that would have been an entirely different story, and without me in it.

Even so, you won't hear gratitude from me. My existence does not by any measure outweigh the brutalities of Soviet power. A large percentage of the Latvian population was deported, tortured and executed under the communist regime. My life cannot measure up to such suffering of the multitudes. In later years, I traveled several times to the Soviet Union to see for myself this world that had so often been described to me, yet nonetheless remained and remains nearly incomprehensible. The experience of my travels behind the Iron Curtain is a memory that will never leave me. These are the memories and impressions returned to me with the reading of Tom Rob Smith's debut novel, Child 44.

Tom Rob Smith has taken his premise for Child 44 from the true story of Russian serial murderer, Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered over 50 women and children in Russia during the 1980s. Although Smith has set his story in an earlier time period, the 1950s, he has not lost, but only gained levels of intrigue and suspense by choosing the worst years of Soviet oppression. The difference, the author explains, is that in the latter years, someone in open rebellion against the political system might lose an apartment, while in earlier years, it would have meant the loss of life.

The story of Child 44 has the chill of historical and political accuracy. The author is still in his twenties at this writing, yet the combination of his research and already rich life and travel experience have given him the depth of insight required to bring this tale of Soviet horror vividly to life. I had to wonder, in fact, and quite often during my reading, how many readers less aware of Soviet history might construe this as mere fantasy. In too many ways, it is not. The sense of unraveling sanity and logic threaded throughout daily Soviet life is all too real: Black is declared white and white, black. What you see, you are told, is not what you see. What you know is not to be known. Deny everything. And in saving your own life, choose who will die among your loved ones.

Leo Demidov is a key character, the communist detective pursuing the killer who cannot be named. The first insanity is that the Soviet government denies the existence of crime in its so-called utopian state. If life is perfection, why would anyone commit a crime? Crime, they claim, is an outgrowth of a capitalist society. And then, a crime so gruesome as to kill a child, ripping open his belly to expose his insides, stuffing his open mouth with bark and gravel. Yet such dead and tortured children's bodies appear throughout Soviet Russia, and despite the growing threat to his own safety, Demidov is determined to stop the child murderer. He cannot question witnesses, however, when there is no official crime to witness. He cannot conduct investigations when there is no official crime to investigate. To stop these murders, Demidov must become himself a criminal against the state. Such is Stalin's workers' paradise ...

The stakes grow ever higher, as Demidov's loyalty to the state is tested when his wife is accused of being a spy. In spite of her innocence, Demidov is faced with calling the authorities liars by defending his wife—or handing over his innocent wife to be executed but show his loyalty to the state that does no wrong.

A page-turner, indeed, but blood runs even colder when one knows this type of existence was all too real behind the Iron Curtain of the very real Soviet Union. Tom Rob Smith has my respect and admiration for putting into words what makes so little sense to the rational mind. I suggest supplemental reading in the form of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago for the true history of this nightmarish world.

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