Smith’s stunning debut, Child 44 (2008), was long-listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Now he’s back, and so is his long-suffering, soulful, courageous hero, Leo Demidov. It’s 1956, and Leo, heartsick over his dutiful work as an MGB (State Security) agent, which requires him to send innocent people to the gulag, wants only to love and support his wife, Raisa, and their two adopted daughters, Zoya and Elena. But Nikita Khrushchev’s speech to the twentieth Communist Party Congress, criticizing Stalin’s brutality and mandating reform, frees many former prisoners and starts a wave of brutal reprisals against Soviet bureaucrats. Leo and his family are prime targets of a driven, devious, and dangerous female gang leader, whose goal in life is to make Leo suffer more than she did. Her machinations lead Leo through the freezing sewers of Moscow to the gulag and on to Budapest, just as Soviet tanks are leveling it. As in Child 44, Smith’s plotting is elaborate, and his pacing is relentless. His characters are wonderfully drawn, and the near-nonstop action is utterly gripping. Again, as in the earlier book, however, the author’s greatest success is in personalizing the stunning tragedy and brutality of life for many millions of Russians. The Secret Speech is a harrowing novel, but everyone who loved Child 44 will leap to read it.
— Thomas Gaughan