House of Meetings Is an Amazon Significant Seven selection for March 2007
With The House of Meetings
, Martin Amis may finally have written the novel his critics thought would never come. By taming his signature (and polarizing) stylistic high-wire act, Amis has crafted a sober tale of love and cynicism against the grim curtain of Stalin's Russia. The book's anonymous narrator--a Red Army veteran and unapologetic war criminal--and his passive, poetic half-brother, Lev, become pinned in a politically dangerous love triangle with the exotic Zoya, though their tactics (and intentions) are as divergent as their personalities. Swept up in the wave of Stalin's paranoid purges, the brothers are sent independently to Norlag, a Siberian internment camp where their respective fates are cast through their contrasting reactions to the depravity of the prison. Zoya and Lev share a night in "The House of Meetings," a room provided for conjugal visits with the prisoners, and the events of that night reverberate through the decades, the details of the liaison remaining concealed until the story's devastating denouement.
Amis's main achievement is his depiction of the cruel realities of the Soviet gulags. Drawing heavily on his research for Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, his half-history/half-memoir of political imprisonment and industrial-scale killing in Soviet Russia, Amis has created his own Animal Farm--without metaphors to mask the blood, filth, and death of the camps. Amis vividly recreates the social structure of gulag life, as the inmates and guards sort themselves into distinct hierarchies and stations in their struggles to survive the rigors of the gulag. Here The House of Meetings may accomplish what Amis had intended for the unfocused Koba: to cast a searing light on an often overlooked episode of 20th century inhumanity and mass murder. --Jon Foro
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From Publishers Weekly
A unnamed former gulag inmate in Amis's disappointing latest is now a rich, 84-year-old expatriate Russian taking a tour of the former gulags in 2004. The narrator chronicles his current and past experiences in a book-length letter to his American "stepdaughter," Venus. Wry remarks on contemporary Russia and the U.S. run up against gulag reminiscences, which tell of the years 1948 through 1956, when the narrator and his brother Lev suffered in the Norlag concentration camp. The letter contains another letter, from the dying Lev, dated 1982, which was the year Lev's son Artem died in Afghanistan. Lev's first wife—and the narrator's first love—was Zoya, a Jewish Russian beauty who by 1982 was an alcoholic married to a Soviet apparatchik. The narrator's own feeling of debasement, when, after Lev's death, he finally meets Zoya again in Norlag's conjugal cabin (the House of Meetings), is complicated to the point of impaction. Amis's trademark riffs are all too muffled in his obvious research. And Venus, the narrator's supposedly beloved stepdaughter, is such a negative space filled with trite clichés about affluent young Americans, and such irritating second guesses about her reactions, that it lends a distinctly bullying tone to the book. (Jan.)
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