Wednesday, October 29, 2014
There Once Lived A Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Despite the funny title, you need to know right away that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's tales are anything but funny. These are not stories about people you're going to like very much. Petrushevskaya writes tough, relentless stories about women whose lives would be unimaginable if she did not imagine them for us. But she breathes such life into these sad people that they become real, and unforgettable.
It's almost hard for me to summarize the first story, "Time is Night". A woman's life spins around her like a centrifuge. Her elderly mother is being hospitalized for a mental illness and the narrator wants to spare her the slow suffering death of the wrong institution; her daughter is pregnant again; her son is a useless drunk; her grandson Tima is the light of her life but sets her aside for his mother, as useless as her brother. All of these unfortunates live in the same tiny apartment, making demands, taking up space, poisoning each other with anger and spite and bitterness.
In the second story the poisoning is more literal. "Chocolates with Liqueur" tells the story of a woman desperate to save herself and her children from murder at the hands of her husband. It's hard to say which of the three stories is the bleakest, but this one broke my heart with its nightmarish portrayal of lives gone horribly wrong.
Finally there is "Among Friends," about a mother who abandons her child to a group of friends including the child's father after being diagnosed with a fatal illness. She tries to convince us, and herself, that his future will be bright. But she doesn't quite manage it.
This is the third collection of Petrushevskaya's tales that Penguin has published in the last few years and has by far the darkest and most difficult stories. Other collections have dabbled in the supernatural and played with Russian folk tales. This collection is strictly realistic, each tale shot through with panic and inevitability. There is that little sliver of hope offered at the end, but only a sliver. Petrushevskaya has been described as a kind of Solzhenitsyn of the home- someone who doesn't write about politics, isn't a dissident writer in the classical sense but who exposes everyday horrors inside a way of life both oppressive and chaotic, which leaves people feeling out of control and therefore taking control the only way they know how- by acting out their rage and hopelessness on those closest to them. With the torments and brutality of everyday life she creates a searing and indelible lexicon with which to understand and imagine a country so much of whose history and stories are so familiar. She takes that familiarity and takes it apart, conjuring images and emotions sure to burn themselves into your memory and stay with you forever.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin.