Review: Independence Square

This is a swift-moving, engaging new novel, says Stoddard Martin


Independence Square by A D Miller (Harvill Secker £14.99)

This is a swift-moving, engaging new novel by an author previously short-listed for the Booker Prize. Its focus is on the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. It is told mainly from the point of view of a middle-aged British diplomat stationed in Kiev at the time. His surreptitious aid to dissidents in Independence Square assures that they will, at least superficially, temporarily, succeed. The cost to his career, however, is fatal. 

The scene in that city, in those bleak days of autumn 2014, is etched in with the skill of a naturalist painter. Against it is contrasted a somewhat less vivid London on a summer’s day a few years later. Here, the disgraced diplomat, abandoned by wife and daughter as well as career, tries to piece together what led to his downfall. The moveable parts in a post-Soviet world order are painted in shady relief. 

We encounter bit players from the activist street — an ex-soldier, his would-be “honey trap” sister — as well as intrigants of a semi-involved West — an ambitious embassy publicity officer, a security chief, a self-interested media high-flyer. Their behaviours, feckless or sly, have consequences. 

Most powerfully, behind all, looms a local oligarch, concerned less with which side will win than with being on the winning side. 

The protagonist, in conventional Brit spy-thriller manner, is a partly shambling, sporadically erring, fundamentally honest man. That he lacks the ruthlessness of those who have grown up in a less easy world is in his moral favour, but it is practically fatal. 

Brits need to take on a Machiavellianism made for post-Soviet winners — that seems to be the book’s latent message, though it is shaded or perhaps hidden behind the author’s strategy of giving the lead role to a non-beautiful but quite decent loser. 

The tumbrils of history turn. Revolutions come only to be co-opted, lost, subsumed into regional wars and/or evolved into conditions equally messy or messier still. Wheels may get stuck in the mud in such places as the eastern borderland of Europe and never quite stop spinning, or they might spin on and out to whir over a hill and into the next quagmire. 

The pretty idea that sunny uplands may be reached is a galvanising myth, not realisable fact. 

“Is safer inside,” the oligarch explains to the protagonist when asked why, despite his billions, he doesn’t quit mixing in politics. “To leave makes no difference, nobody forgets, they find you always. Inside, you have something to trade. Anyway, we always gamble, no? Life is all gamble. To breathe is even to gamble.” A hard lesson. The protagonist’s fate seems to affirm it. 

A D Miller will be talking to Lucy Scholes about his novel, ‘Independence Square’ on Sunday March 8 at Jewish Book Week 2020. Stoddard Martin is a writer, publisher and critic.

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