We gave it a B-
Sometime around the turn of the millennium, Stalin’s ghost began banging at Martin Amis’ window, and the novelist hasn’t slept since. In 2002, he published Koba the Dread, a furious nonfiction book about the atrocities of Communist Russia and the generations of intellectuals — his father, the late novelist Kingsley Amis, among them — who for a time glossed over the horrors of the gulags while daydreaming about the great revolution. The following year, Amis returned to fiction with the cartoony satire Yellow Dog. While his early novels had been thrillingly acidic — you read them as if the words were about to eat away at the page — Yellow Dog was widely panned. It wasn’t the worst novel Amis had ever written, but not for lack of trying.
Maybe he had unfinished business with a ghost. Amis’ new novel, House of Meetings, is a slim book with the aspirations of an epic. It concerns two half brothers who come of age under Stalin, then spend the late ’40s and ’50s in a gulag above the Arctic Circle. Our volatile, unnamed narrator is a former Red Army soldier. His brother Lev embraces pacifism amid the camp’s astonishing deprivations. For decades, the brothers yearn for the same woman back home — an unabashedly sexual creature named Zoya, who’s as elusive as Sophie, post-choice.
If all this sounds like a captivating 1,000-page Russian novel, be advised that it’s a semi-touching 240-page British one. The narrator tells his story from late in life. Now an elderly tourist taking a cruise back to Siberia, he writes the book as a letter to his stepdaughter, Venus. The epistolary form feels like a musty, distracting convention for a novelist of Amis’ power. What’s worse, his famously stylish prose has vanished in favor of a solemn baritone. There’s writing that glows (”When you are old, noise comes to you as pain. Cold comes to you as pain”), but too much undigested research about crimes against the people. This is a novel about Russia dying — unless I’m misreading sentences like ”My country is dying” and ”I was there when my country started to die.” As if in sympathy, the novel nearly dies too.
On the cruise, the narrator carries an unread letter from his brother Lev, now dead. It’s a means of generating suspense — and another lame convention (”I’ll read it later. I want that to be more or less the last thing I do”). But the letter does shed light. ”I used to think that it was the war, and not camp, that f—ed you up,” Lev writes. ”But…whatever the war did, camp trapped it inside you.” A potentially heartbreaking notion. If only Amis had found a way to let it out. B-