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30-08-2009

Tom Rob Smith, Child 44

(Simon and Schuster UK Ltd, 2008)


ImageTom Rob Smith’s debut novel, Child 44, has drawn accolades from critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Long-listed for the Man Booker prize (the first ‘thriller’ to be so), film rights have already been snapped up by Hollywood and it has been widely reviewed in British tabloids and broadsheets and on television. Its appeal, both to the discerning ‘literary’ reader and to the general public, can be attributed to Rob Smith’s skill in delivering both a suspenseful and well plotted thriller and a penetrating socio-political analysis of the last years of Stalinist rule in Soviet Russia. Set in 1953, the novel centres on a horrific series of murders in which children are ritually slain, with their stomachs crudely removed and their mouths filled with bark. In a communist society which has decreed that there can be no crime, the murders are labelled ‘accidents’ and ignored by the police to become the subject of myth and legend amongst the urban and rural poor whose children are fated to be the killer’s most likely victims. Inquiries begin, however, when Leo Demidov, an up-and-coming member of the MGB, the State Security Services, is forced to face the parents of one such murdered child, the 44th victim, whilst also confronting the consequences of his own actions as the agent of a state that holds its people in thrall by fear and terror. Via the figure of Demidov, the novel meshes murder investigation with an acute and often harrowing social investigation of the conditions of life in Soviet Russia. From the routine denunciation of one’s family and friends to the abject horror of a justice system that acts as a façade for mass persecution and extermination, Rob Smith highlights the brutalised mental processes required to remain in servitude to such a state, as well as the bravery required to ‘break free’, literally and psychologically. Indeed, Rob Smith is at his best when he probes the painful ‘reeducation’ of Demidov, who has first to unlearn his training as a state agent and then to atone for his crimes by identifying the child-murderer and planning his own form of retributive justice. For murder here is symptomatic of a deeply traumatised and diseased body politic, a society that has been starved, tortured and beaten into submission by its masters. What Rob Smith does in Child 44 is to illuminate such darkness and offer the reader a redemptive ending for Demidov, if not for Soviet Russia itself. 

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