I was a big fan of Miller's debut, the Booker-shortlisted Snowdrops. This, his second novel, is set in Ukraine at the time of the Orange Revolution, and in the present day. It follows Simon Davey, a senior British diplomat in Kiev in 2004 who was sacked after a scandal involving Olesya, a local woman embroiled in the anti-government protests. In 2017 he spots her unexpectedly in London—so what is she doing now, and what did she do back then?
...it is a strength of this book that people do keep surprising us. Like any good novelist, Miller manages this by creating the illusion that everyone, even a minor character, has an inner life. The human heart cannot be reduced to an algorithm. The plot thickens nicely, spiced with piquant aphorisms to lend it that fatalistic Russian flavour. “My friend is near to me, but my belly is nearer” is a recurring line, spoken by an oligarch named Kovrin who back in 2004 held the power of life and death over the peaceful protesters flooding into Independence Square... “Any situation – the secret, main key, is speed of adapting. Fastest to adapt is one who wins. You understand? Is only thing you can control. New government, new business, new partners.” Thus speaks the oligarch, though it also sounds quite like José Mourinho in one of his charmless sulks at a press conference. The detail of Miller’s scenario feels authoritative, and the quality of his prose is never in doubt. But a touch of something more vulgar and racy might have made Independence Square a book that grips as well as gripes.
If plots are what you read novels for, Independence Square might grab you. But this one is about politics, which the author had already signalled he has no interest in except as fizz for his novel. So you may prefer to wait for Independence Square to reach Netflix and get it all over with in 90 minutes. What novels can do is reveal character. If you cannot work up interest in the plot, Independence Square provides this real consolation and shows that the author has the power to be a real writer.
Although it is billed (like Miller’s Booker-shortlisted Snowdrops) as a thriller, the books’ shared ploy — retrospective sections making it clear from the outset that the main story line ended in fiasco — eliminates suspense. His elegantly written novels may be best seen instead as serio-comic studies à la Graham Greene of Brits blundering abroad.
At its best, Independence Square made me think of a 21st-century Graham Greene novel, an absorbing thriller informed by emotional intelligence and a deep understanding of geopolitics. There’s more than a trace of Greene in the book’s sharply drawn minor characters, its insights into the world of diplomacy and political deal-making, and the contrary pulls of duty and desire. Where the novel falls short of Greene is in its over-elaborate structure, which switches between tenses and points of view in a way that feels unnecessarily complex. My other quibble is that the final revelation about what torpedoed Simon’s career is delayed beyond the point at which a reader will find themselves guessing it – so that it lands with an “oh” rather than a “wow”.
Treading somewhat similar ground to his Booker-shortlisted 2011 debut, Snowdrops, in this slim novel AD Miller recreates the heady days of the Orange Revolution in evocative detail. As Davey gradually unpicks his past, unexpected shifts in perspective add depth and tension.
As the protestors and government clash, it is the 21st century that slowly emerges. This is a book about truth and lies, about dirty money and the manipulation of politics, about a world where anything is possible and where even a war can be ‘hallucinated into reality’. And it is about power. Those like Korvin are the doers; they prosper. And then there are those like Olesya, the ‘people who things are done to — object, not subject’.
This, then, is a story not about a revolution in Eastern Europe but about the way we live now.
The novel’s motor is the reader’s hunger to find out how Davey’s life, once so gilded, could crash so badly. But we already know nothing ends well; not Davey’s career, not Olesya’s idealism, not the Orange revolution. After a while this triple whammy of negatives slows the story down. The ending wobbles as Davey seems set to follow a particular track; an event unfolds from which there is almost no point of return, then abruptly reverses. Kovrin’s survival advice to Davey is the most useful: adapt and fast. “Any situation — I mean new situation — the secret, main key, is speed of adapting. Fastest to adapt is one who wins.” But the price is paid by others, as Davey learns. His story lingers long after the last page.