Tom Rob Smith writes as if he is channeling the ghost of a street-level Soviet bureaucrat. Alternately, one could not be blamed if they reached the conclusion that Smith transcribes the fierce whisperings of an angry babushka who bore forced silent witness to the quiet Stalin-era atrocities that were perpetuated against the Soviet citizenry in the 1950s. Both conclusions would be wrong; Smith describes life in the Soviet bloc in the mid-20th century --- practically a quarter-century before he was born --- with such immediacy that his words, and the sentences and paragraphs that they form, threaten to jump off the printed page.
"Smith’s ability to cast a light on hope and caring in even that most dismal of places is but one factor that makes THE SECRET SPEECH a masterpiece."
Smith’s 2008 debut novel, CHILD 44, garnered critical and commercial acclaim. Unrelentingly grim, it concerned a Soviet state security officer named Leo Demidov, whose assignment to a remote corner of Stalin’s Soviet Empire is a de facto exile. Demidov uncovers the existence of a serial killer in a nation where a person committing such crimes cannot exist. It was widely heralded as one of the year’s best novels; his follow-up, however improbably, is even better than its predecessor.
THE SECRET SPEECH is a novel about transgressions, and how the sins of the past, whether recent or remote, come back to haunt the sinner. Demidov, as demonstrated in CHILD 44, was a bad man who by the end of the book had sought to take a brighter path to redemption. THE SECRET SPEECH opens with a flashback to one of Demidov’s most evil actions, the arrest --- and so much more --- of a priest that takes place in Moscow in 1949.
The setting fast forwards to Moscow in 1956 where Demidov, now heading the city’s homicide department, is living in a shaky domestic tranquility with his wife and their two adopted daughters. He is in the process of investigating a series of suicides that appear to be connected when an event occurs that is of earth-shaking importance: Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, has denounced Stalin’s reign of terror. The Soviet Union is almost immediately turned upside down as a result. Not everyone welcomes this pronouncement, however, particularly those like Demidov who at one time or another had carried out Stalin’s orders against the nation’s own citizens.
Against this chaotic backdrop, the unthinkable happens to Demidov and his wife: Zoya, one of their very troubled adopted daughters, is kidnapped by a vory, a dangerous criminal fraternity operating outside of society. The enigmatic leader of the group is holding Zoya hostage and demands that Demidov help right a wrong that he committed some years before. In order to free Zoya, he must make an near- impossible journey across the breadth of the Soviet Union to one of the government’s most dreaded gulags to free a man who has almost been forgotten and return him to Moscow.
What Demidov discovers, however, is that his dangerous sojourn is but the first in a series of actions that will end violently --- and, for some, very badly --- in Budapest as Hungarian citizens, emboldened by the false promise of a new era, attempt to cast off the Soviet yoke. Throughout the book, Demidov is faced with the ultimate question: In a land where deceit and betrayal dog every action, every word, how does a person who strives to act for the good survive? There may well be no answer.
THE SECRET SPEECH is more than a journey into the heart of darkness; indeed, it travels to the very soul of it. There is a vignette near the beginning of the book that involves a chase through one of Moscow’s antiquated sewer systems, a scene that serves as a metaphor for all that is about to occur. Despite (or perhaps because of) the grimness of his subject matter, Smith possesses a clarity of vision and language that makes the events he describes all the more frightening. You have heard that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Here, all roads begin and end in that place, and those few that are paved at all are pockmarked with potholes. Smith’s ability to cast a light on hope and caring in even that most dismal of places is but one factor that makes THE SECRET SPEECH a masterpiece.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011