“The safest way to write a diary was to imagine Stalin reading every word.”
A foreboding opening sentence, and the prevailing thread for the entire story. Preceding the events of Child 44 throughout the first fifty pages, the reader discovers how our protagonist Agent Leo Demidov met his wife Raisa, and more importantly, understands why their love for each other is so unyielding.
At twenty-seven years old, Leo has risen through the ranks of the MGB, to become a key Agent in 1950’s Russia. He is assigned to the detail in charge of protecting the African-American singer and dedicated Communist from America, Jesse Austin, on his tour of their motherland. But Leo is put under the utmost pressure from Jesse to break from protocol and show him the underbelly of Russian society. Instead of the planned route where:
“A man’s status had become defined by how much empty space surrounded him.”
While dealing with these pressures Leo spends more time with Raisa as his career builds to a defining moment on the Austin tour. It is a wonderful opening to the four part story structure of this novel, and many readers will relish seeing the younger Leo during these early formative years, which define the character we see in the subsequent novels.
Picking up on their lives fifteen years later in 1965, after the events of both Child 44 and The Secret Speech the next section reunites us with their adopted daughters, Zoya and Elana, who were just children in Child 44 but are now twenty-two and seventeen respectively. Elana is very much a focal point of Leo’s suspicious nature, with her increasingly odd behaviour, and her secret diary discovered in their apartment. Along with her sister and Raisa, they are preparing to leave Leo behind and visit America. Restless at being separated from Raisa for the first time since they were married, Leo listens to her sleeping by his side:
“He imagined that she was breathing for both of them.”
The delegation of Soviet students are to perform concerts in New York City and Washington D.C. in a bid to improve relations between the two nations, and Raisa, now a prominent figure in the education system, is tasked with leading them. One of the propaganda experts assigned to them, Mikael Ivanov, is determined to ensure the students are not seduced by the American lifestyle during their visit. The Russian contingent is watched closely by the scrupulous FBI Agent Jim Yates, who has spent the last nine years monitoring the Communist Party of America, and whose very presence on the page makes a reader uncomfortable. This is a man who will stop at nothing to achieve his objectives.
What is most remarkable about this second section, is that when the girls leave Leo behind, so do the readers. Our protagonist is pushed into the background and we spend over two hundred pages away from him. This is an extremely audacious move by the author, but one that works brilliantly. For we finally get to spend time with Raisa in this trilogy, and see how she herself operates under pressure. Her strength and guile allows us to fully appreciate why Leo has found his soul mate, and her paternal instinct that something is awry hurtles us towards a chilling mid-point climax that this reader never saw coming. Consequently it is one of the very best sections in the whole series.
It propels us reeling into the third section of the novel, which takes place fifteen years after the climax in America. For seven of those years, Leo, now based in Kabul, and separated from his family, has been acting as an Advisor to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Joining him in 1980 he is a changed man from the vigorous Agent we saw at the beginning of the book. He has become weary and disillusioned with the atrocities happening around him, some of which he is indirectly responsible for as an Advisor. A young Afghan recruit, Nara Mir, is assigned to watch and learn from him. Someone whom Leo observes:
“Her optimism had been painted over a troubled soul.”
Forced to work together by Captain Vashchenko, it is soon apparent that Nara is struggling to comprehend the lengths that the Soviets will go to to maintain order. But as Leo astutely points out:
“Try to realize the awfulness of your position today isn’t remarkable, or exceptional, it’s ordinary.”
This line resonated a great deal while reading the consequences of the 80’s war unfold in Afghanistan. At two hundred pages, this section is by no means concise, and yet readers will not want it to end. It is gripping, moving, and packed with poignant scenes that makes one question the current war in this country. There is one particular chapter set in the village of Sokh Rot while children innocently play that will stay with this reader for a very long time. The only thread of hope that Leo clings to is to escape across the border into Pakistan, and to one day reach America. It is this driving force that puts us in the midst of the Soviet-Afghan conflict as Leo risks everything to achieve his goal.
The final section of the novel should be left for a reader to discover on their own, because it does not disappoint. Building towards a terrific cliffhanger in the pursuit of Agent 6, the climax could not have been better written.
The quest of Agent Leo Demidov throughout this novel is an excellent character study of what melancholy can do to the human psyche over a sustained period. This is not a fast paced thriller with convoluted plot points. It is far more intelligent than that. Events happen when they would naturally occur, not because they are convenient to whatever page number we are on. Spanning decades and continents, this sweeping cinematic epic of a novel, never fails to impress.
The author has an innate skill for creating scenes that linger, and his protagonist is one of the truly great fictional heroes of the 21st century.
With Agent 6, Tom Rob Smith emphatically confirms that he is one of the finest literary talents working today.