Sunday, 1 November 2015

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Book to movie adaptations; you either hate them or you love them. Me, I’m somewhere in-between. Early on in my reading career I realized that I was never going to be happy with adaptations unless I learned to separate them in my mind. For the most part I do this pretty well; I am able to pretend the book and the movie are two totally separate entities that just happen to be about the same subject. Sometimes I even look forward to the movie – I am not great a visualising things in my head and I like to have a visual of a character.  Of course this can very easily go wrong. The worst things for me are bad casting and when they change things for the movie that don’t need to be changed (this seems to happen a lot). The one thing that is most important to me though is that I read the book first. I want to form my own impressions and opinions before someone else tells me what to see. All of this preamble is because my boyfriend has been trying to get me to watch Child 44 with him for months. I have been putting it off and ignoring him whenever he suggests it since I didn’t have the book and I am not supposed to be buying any more books – so I was hoping that I could find it in a second hand shop somewhere. AND I needed the copy WITHOUT the movie cover. (I know. I’m picky.) Anyway! Trying to not make a long story any longer than I have already made it – I was able to find a copy that met my needs and am now reading it so that I don’t have to make Malcolm wait any longer!

All that being said – this is going to be one messed up movie. Child 44 takes place in post war Russian, where the only crime that exists is spying against the state. Anyone can be guilty of that crime – doing anything out of your normal routine can cause you to become a suspect and once you become a suspect you are automatically assumed guilty. Leo Demidov, an idealistic security officer has his unwavering loyalty shaken when a series of events leads him to believe that maybe the state isn’t as honest and absolute as they purport. A little boy has been murdered and since murder doesn’t exist, any investigation is being quashed, and Demidov discovers that maybe being suspected of
espionage and actually being guilty of it are two very different things. When things start to get a little more personal and his wife is accused of being a spy, Demidov does the only thing his conscience will allow and ends up being demoted to a remote village outside of Moscow. Here he works for the local militia – the job is demeaning, dealing with crimes that shouldn’t be happening, and he is not trusted by the locals. Leo was a bright shining star with the state police and its unusual for someone disgraced to be allowed to live… When another child shows up murdered in this small town, in the same way as the boy in Moscow, Demidov beings to think that there may be more afoot and starts an investigation, one that could place him and his wife in either further danger.   

This is another mid-point review, and of course, the mid-point occurs exactly as things get interesting. Not that they weren’t already. Child 44 has so many layers that are so intricately woven… I wish I had better words to describe it. Smith has done a brilliant job in recreating the fear and oppression of Stalin’s Russia – a time a admittedly know nothing about. I’m not sure how much of this story is historical, but I am really hoping none of it is. The entire population lives in fear of the state, everyone and anyone expects to be searched or followed at any given moment. Smith describes the three levels of cells in the main state police building and I had shivers “some were ankle deep in freezing water, the walls covered in mold and slime… there were narrow closets, like wooden coffins, where bedbugs had been left to multiply and in which a prisoner would remain, naked, feasted upon, until ready to sign a confession… there were cork-lined rooms were prisoners were heated, cooked by the building’s ventilation system, until blood seeped out of their pores.”

There is also the relationship between Demidov and his wife, Raisa. At first they seem like the perfect couple – both beautiful, Leo is the strong, loyal policeman, and Raisa is the perfect Russian housewife. But things there are not what they seem as well – which poor Demidov only learns after their lives turn to hell. Smith has done a great job of creating their characters and their relationship. No one is exactly what they seem, which makes perfect sense given the temperament of the country in which they live. Everyone must hide their secret selves, their desires and their fears. Only when Leo and Raisa have gone through the worst, and somehow come out alive, can they truly be honest with each other. This layer is truly brilliant, I must say. As interested as I am in every other aspect of this story, this is one that I am most enjoying. Their entire married lives they have never communicated honestly with each other and watching them struggle now – to be honest, to communicate when necessary, to throw off all of their assumptions… Demidov also has to start being honest with himself, which may be even harder “How different was he from his moral opposite? Was the difference merely that Vasili was senselessly cruel while he’d been idealistically cruel? One was empty, indifferent cruelty while the other was a principled, pretentious cruelty which thought of itself as reasonable and necessary. But in real terms, in destructive terms, there was little to separate the two men. Had Leo lacked the imagination to realize what he was involved in? Or was it worse than that - had he chosen not to imagine it? He’d shut down those thoughts, brushed them aside.”

Watching Demidov now try to solve a crime is also slightly horrifying. In a country where there is no crime, there is also no method of dealing with it. Demidov has no forensic training and is doing his best with the little information that he has. Most people are not willing to help; since Demidov is mistrusted no one wants to get in trouble for helping him. This brings another element that I am loving to the book. Demidov’s methods are all based on his intuition – normally he decides who is guilty and finds (or makes up) the evidence to convict them. This time he needs to find the evidence to lead him in the right direction, and that’s not a path he is used to taking. Smith leads us through Demidov’s mind as he plans and thinks and figures things out in such a good way – you struggle right alongside of Demidov.

The only thing that has been bothering me is the blurb on the back of the book. It states “But when a murderer kills at will and Leo dares to investigate, the State’s obedient servant finds himself demoted and exiled.” This is actually completely inaccurate. Demidov does not start his investigation until after his demotion – which has nothing to do with the murder. This is a pretty big distinction. Part of what makes Demidov so real is that it takes the destruction of his glass castle to make him realize what is real and what is important. He’s not a hero sacrificing everything for some noble cause. He’s beaten and broken and trying his best to get by, trying his best to sleep at night and trying to prove himself to Raisa and to himself. 


  1. Great review Sheila. Now I want to read the book!

  2. Why thank you! I'll lend it to you :)