Trust but check. Check on those we trust.
Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith
As much as I love writing out wishlists, the best gifts I’ve received are often ones I’d never have thought to purchase for myself. And nothing makes me happier than when a thoughtful friend decides to feed my reading habit. It was my birthday a couple months ago, and a friend decided to give me Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 as a gift. I wasn’t aware of this book, and I probably wouldn’t have sought it out, since I tend to gravitate towards classics and also have a 200+ long TBR list to get through, but it’s always nice when someone introduces you to something new.
Child 44 tells the story of Leo Demidov, a security officer in Stalinist Russia, who unfailingly excels at following orders (no matter how cruel), until the orders turn on him. He then begins investigating a series of strangely brutal murders, along with his wife, Raisa. Since the book’s engrossing plot is its main characteristic, I don’t believe I can say more than that without giving too much away. I enjoyed all the twists and turns of the plot and found most of them plausible, although somewhat melodramatic at times.
Although the book is plot-driven, I didn’t find it deficient in other aspects. The characters, while at first seeming to be fairly stereotypical (stoic Russian security officers, meek wives), are fleshed out and real. Each character has their own motivations and morality, which is clearly expressed despite the focus on plot. The prose, while not poetic, does its job, and is succinct while also conveying the urgency or violence of the plot as necessary. I have a fairly weak stomach when it comes to violence, and while parts of the book are necessarily gruesome, I didn’t find it gratuitously so.
After I finished reading, I scoured some Goodreads reviews to seek out other readers’ opinions on the book. I have very limited knowledge on Russian history, and I was curious to what extent the book was accurate in its depiction of life under Stalin. I found reviews that praised the book as accurate, and others that criticized it for promoting a cliche view of Russia and Russians. As with all fiction, I took the book with a grain of salt and simply enjoyed the setting for the questions it posed around Big Brother, privacy, and so on. Still, I wondered – does a work of fiction have a responsibility to readers to be historically accurate? Or otherwise inform readers of any discrepancies? I’m not sure – what would be the point of fiction if it couldn’t instill a sense of doubt in its readers?
YES OR NO?: YES. Child 44 is entertaining, well-written, and still thought-provoking. I enjoyed the book far more than I thought I would and am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.