Archive for December, 2009

Stalinism thriller fails to get full Marx

It certainly was no Christmas Carol – but many of us were expecting great things of this month’s choice, Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. As the first thriller to be longlisted for the Booker (in 2008), it was obviously going to be a very literary example of the genre. Indeed it was – but the general consensus was that the final 80 pages or so rather spoiled the rest of the book.
Where Tom Rob Smith excelled was in his sense of place and description of the pitiless Stalinist Russia of the 1950s. This had particular resonance for one reader, whose mother was born in a part of Estonia which borders with Russia – her more recent visits there suggest that many grim aspects of this landscape can still be seen today. For this Book Group member, the descriptions were highly authentic. Tom Rob Smith also raises some fascinating questions – how a relatively good man can be so faithful in serving a rotten and corrupt regime and how fear can infiltrate all parts of society, including personal relationships. Yet it seemed that these issues were not fully developed and were sacrificed for a racier plot, particularly towards the end of the book.
Ann summed up the problem of the ending very nicely: “I could almost hear the machinery creaking as the cogs strained to bring the two brothers full circle.” For many of us, the ending was just too contrived and implausible – from the identity of the serial killer and his motive to the escape scenes and the final attempt at redemption (or a sequel, depending on how cynical you are). We wondered how much pressure the author was under to write this way, which Margaret described as rather like an Indiana-Jones scenario. And that feeling that we were reading more of a screenplay than a novel bothered several of us. And our resident crime/serial killer expert Janet found it had so many conventions that it seemed to her like “a thriller by numbers.”
So although some of the writing was well above the average in the genre, we were surprised that it made it onto the Man Booker longlist.
There was, however, something of a split – some readers found it so gripping and realistic that they rated it very highly. So – an interesting choice that did prompt a lively discussion.
And just so that I don’t sound too much like Scrooge, I have to give an honourable mention to Kim at Doolally’s and her fabulously festive mincemeat shortbread. The new book list should be out in the next few days and Kim has also promised her brilliant 3-for-2 deal again for the new choices, which is a fantastic offer. Kim offers the Doolally’s cafe and the book discounts entirely out of goodwill – so it’s important that we support our local bookshop in return.
Look out for the new book choices shortly and if it’s not too late, see if Santa can swing past Doolally’s to pick them up for you. Merry Christmas to everyone – and may all our stockings bulge with books!


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

December 2009
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