three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
27-Mar-Apr-2007
By: 
Martin Amis
user_rating: 
0

A-House of Meetings"If what they say is true, and my country is dying, then I think I may be able to tell them why." So begins the epistolary confession of a Russian expatriate to his American stepdaughter as he returns to the motherland as a tourist. The unnamed narrator, now an 80-something American exile, recalls his life in all its violence and glorified brutality as he tours Norlag, the Stalinist labor camp where he was imprisoned for nearly a decade. The ghosts of his past—his idealistic brother Lev, interned at the same gulag, and Lev’s Jewish wife Zoya, the narrator’s first love—are joined by the ghosts of the narrator’s lost humanity and the shame of an entire nation.
Knopf. 256 pages. $23. ISBN: 1400044553

Sunday Times (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"He has written a slender, moving novel, streaked with dark comedy, which investigates how Stalinism exacted a price from its subjects, a price which was ‘to be paid not by the spoonful or the shovelful, but by the dayful, the yearful, the lifeful.’" Robert MacFarlane

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"House of Meetings may be his bleakest book yet. … Though pared to the bone in terms of Amis’ usual explosive literary flourishes, it is a consistently gripping, concise epic of human atrocity." Connie Ogle

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"House of Meetings is a powerful, unrelenting and deeply affecting performance. … [The narrator’s] monologue will become a meditation not only on his own experiences, but also on the fate of Russia and the profound differences between the East and the West, between those fully initiated into the dark side of history and those still innocent of those horrors." Michiko Kakutani

London Times (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In House of Meetings there is a chilly distance created between the narrator and the horror show he is describing. As such, it’s a bit like being guided through a series of museum exhibitions depicting a vortex of hell." Douglas Kennedy

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Through his singularly unlikable narrator, Amis attempts to impart to readers (as he has done before) his revulsion at the depredations of Soviet Communism and, latterly, post-Soviet history. … Fortified by an arsenal of new details, he has revisited his magnificent obsession with systematized inhumanity." Liesl Schillinger

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"House of Meetings… is a slender book, on the same scale as the nonfictional Koba, and quite imperfect as a novel. But it is vivid and even scarifying, more than some mere noble acknowledgement of mass suffering, a suffering that Western intellectuals so often excused." Thomas Mallon

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"After Lev and his brother leave the camps, the book staggers on for another 100 pages, but the purpose of Amis’s visit to this alien human landscape grows hazy, and the book ultimately fizzles, trapped under the weight of its historical memory, and the scale of its intentions. … Amis has never lost his remarkable gift for description, or his crisp command of dialogue, but the enormity of the camps overwhelms even him." Saul Austerlitz

Critical Summary

Martin Amis has long been frustrated by the lack of outrage at the atrocities committed by the Stalinist regime, which he equates with the Third Reich. (He explored Soviet Communism in 2002’s Koba the Dread.) Building on extensive research, Amis attempts to bring the era to light in this ambitious tale of one man’s life, in his own words, as a representation of the suffering of millions. Most reviewers found the story engrossing, but, according to the Boston Globe, "Amis has taken on more than he can handle." Other critics felt that the voice of the didactic English novelist intruded too much into the narrative, and some complained that the narrator himself was unlikable. However, Amis fans will be pleased with this harrowing account of life under the Gulag.

Cited by the Critics

The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956 | Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1969): Award Star Nobel Prize. This classic book, based on the eyewitness testimonies of the author and more than 200 other prisoners, is still considered the last word on the Soviet system of forced labor and concentration camps.

Gulag A History | Anne Applebaum (2003): Award Star Pulitzer Prize. This fascinating, full-scale history of the Gulag traces the institution, growth, and collapse of the centralized system of slave labor that became the backbone of the Soviet economy. Applebaum examines the lives of the prisoners as well as the long-lasting psychological effects on an entire nation. ( 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003)