Thursday, November 18, 2010

REVIEW: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Published 2009 by Penguin.

Nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award last year and written by one of the most important living Russian writers, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, should be required reading for anyone with an interest in either Russian literature or modern fairy tales.

These fairy tales combine a modern-day setting in a Russia defined by social and economic chaos, fractured families, poverty and disappointment, and traditional fairy tale elements- magic, mysterious visitors and the thin line between the land of the living and that of the dead. Petrushevskaya talks about universal fears- dying, losing life, life, home and family, going to war, disease- through the lens of the supernatural. The stories themselves are short and weird rather than scary; her deadpan style and matter-of-fact tone resist put-on atmospherics. Sometimes what she recounts seems almost banal, until the reader remembers what it is she's recounting.

People come back from the dead, often in dreams, to guide left-behind loved ones; spells are cast; lovers are disappointed or defeated. The title story is truly bizarre and frightening and there are lots of scares, twists and chills to be had. But sometimes the stories are happy, in their way. In "The Cabbage Patch Mother", a lonely woman whose child has died finds someone to love in a mysterious little girl she names Droplet. In "Marilena's Secret", my favorite story, an obese circus performer who's been cursed by a disappointed beau finally finds redemption. And "My Love" is a complex, subtle and sad tale of adulteries layered on adulteries.

Part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
Politics are largely absent from Petrushevskaya's stories, at least on the superficial level; they could be taking place in any time or place, and seem to take place on the margins of history, in ordinary life. Fans of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, the fiction Kelly Link or Neil Gaiman, and fantasy and modern fairy tales are the obvious audience for There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby but I think readers of literary fiction and some YA readers would enjoy this collection, too. Petrushevskaya is a really wonderful writer who I wish I knew better and who I wish was better known generally. It's a really neat and a really unusual book,  and really rewarding, too.

Rating: BUY


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.