I swear I got smarter while I was reading this book. Seriously, though, this is some intense fiction. I revisited a common complaint of mine, which is that the author makes the assumption that one knows something about his subject; in this case modern Russian history. Half the time I had no idea what he was talking about! I know relatively nothing about Stalin, post WWII Russia, the Gulag and all that. I know about relationships, though - oppression, lust, hatred - this book has it all.
I never even considered putting this book down; it almost makes me want to go check out a book on Russia and learn more. That's the impact of the book. Add to that Martin Amis' beautiful, stunning writing and you've really got a winner. Here's a brief quote from the book that doesn't give anything away:
Let me tell you what I loved about August 4, 1953, when we stood arm in arm. When we stood and faced the state and its whirlwind of iron. I had reached the end of philosophy: I knew how to die. And men don't know how to do that. It might even be that all the really staggering male exertions, both great and base, are brought on by this single incapacity. No other animal is asked to form an attitude to its own extinction. This is horribly difficult for us, and may be thought to mitigate our general notoriety...You need mass emotion - to know how to die.