House of Meetings takes the form of a very lengthy letter from a father to his daughter. The father is traveling back to Siberia in his native Russia to visit the location of a prison camp in which he and his brother were interred for several years after World War II. This is his final journey before death. In his letter, he describes to his daughter the life-changing experiences he and his brother experienced in the camp, but also how they coped with life in the Soviet Union after being classified enemies of the state. It also deeply involves a sort of love triangle. Having entered the prison camp first, the unnamed central character is unaware that his brother, Lev, has married a woman, Zoya, whom they both love. The anonymous narrator must then also come to grips with this unexpected occurrence, and it will take his entire life to do so.
In one sense, the author is able to capture the atmosphere of post-war Soviet Union. He fills the novel with a sense of doom and depression; the cold, gray soulless identity of Communism. He also produces a sense of helplessness, the kind that must come when a country refuses to trust its own citizens. At the same time, there is never a sense of just how terrible the Siberian prison camps must have been. The narrator writes that they were deadly, stating some statistics, but there is never an opportunity for the reader to experience first hand how awful they must have been. He also betrays the fact that he is an outsider. Being an Englishman, Amis had to depend on research to obtain a sense of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. It is fairly obvious that he was not a firsthand witness.
More trouble lies in Amis’ inability to make the narrator sympathetic. This may have something to do with the shortness of the novel, or it may be the character’s attitude. It is difficult to become attached, to become involved with the plot.
However, Martin Amis certainly possesses a native ability to write. His prose is elegant and, at least in the case of this novel, he says what he wants to say without becoming longwinded.
House of Meetings is a short novel which never really draws the reader in but never pushes them away. It is an admirable attempt to look into the Soviet Union, but I am left to wonder if it might have been done better by someone who was actually there.