House of Meetings

Written by Martin Amis
Review by Adelaida Lower

Written as a confession, House of Meetings is the story of two brothers—the unnamed narrator and Lev—and the beautiful, free-spirited woman they both love, Zoya. But this, in Amis’s own words, is not an equilateral triangle. The narrator is a handsome World War II veteran, “ruthless, shameless, and faithless,” who raped his way through East Germany. His younger brother, Lev, is a stuttering, pacifist, “asymmetrical little chap.” When the two meet in a Siberian prison camp after the war, however, Lev announces that he has married Zoya. The narrator is stunned. How can Zoya love such a pitiful man? At the prison camp, their relationship becomes strained as Lev recoils from the violence that for his brother is “currency, like tobacco, like bread.” Then, Zoya comes to visit Lev, and they spend a night together at the House of Meetings. What becomes clear that night will haunt Zoya and Lev the rest of their days. Lev explains it in a letter that his brother will carry unread for the next twenty-two years.

Though slim, House of Meetings reaches out beyond the love story, taking in its setting, Russia, in all its tragic grandeur. The novel feels immense in scope and gravity. With allusions to Conrad and Dostoevsky and a somber, bitter voice, perfect in tone, Amis threads back and forth from past to present, grabbing the reader from start to heartrending finish. The prose is unflinching and raw. “Here be monsters,” warns the narrator broodingly when describing the Arctic landscape, the brutality of life in the gulag, his own amorality, or the horrors endured by the schoolchildren at Beslan when Chechen terrorists take over. The narrator can’t forgive himself, or Russia. In House of Meetings Martin Amis presents us with an unforgettable portrait of a troubled nation and of the lives of two men crushed under its weight. Indispensable reading.