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

By Yossarian | Books | March 5, 2010 | Comments ()

By Yossarian | Books | March 5, 2010 |


There-Once-Lived-a-W.jpg
"There is clearly someone in the house. Walk into the bedroom: something falls in the living room. Look for the cat: it's sitting on the little table in the front hall, its ears pricked up; it clearly heard something, too. Walk into the living room: a scrap of paper has fallen, all by itself, from the piano, with someone's phone number on it, you can't tell whose. It just flew off the piano soundlessly and lies on the carpet, white and alone.

Someone isn't being careful, thinks the woman who lives here. Someone isn't even trying to hide anymore.

-- from "There's Someone in the House"

I had never heard of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya either, before I started seeing this book mentioned or reviewed by various blogs. According to the introduction Petrushevskaya is one of the most important and prolific contemporary writers in Eastern Europe, and probably the most important female writer. At one time she was censored by the Soviet government (although there is nothing overtly political in her writing) but now she is celebrated as a National Treasure. This collection of short stories is the first major translation of her work by an American publisher. She is an essayist, novelist, and playwright, too.

Of course the first thing you notice is the title -- it certainly is attention getting -- before stopping to take a look at what exactly this book is about. The stories are referred to as "scary fairy tales" and they do tend to consist of that grim macabre mingled with the supernatural that the name would imply. Most take place among poor peasants in small villages. The people are isolated, desperate, and usually fixated on some strange personal desire or else trying to avoid some crushing fate. Many are driven by familial love to save a child or a spouse. Their salvation, when granted, comes through sacrifice, forgiveness, and love. The stories are bleak but do allow for some hope and humanity to shine through. They are also fantastically well written.

Several of the stories are in familiar ghost-story territory. A character encounters someone from their past or a husband mysteriously returns early from the war and they have a strange interaction or receive bizarre instructions, and by the end of the story it is revealed that the person they met had died sometime before, and that it was their ghost reaching out to achieve some end. Other stories are allegories for desperation felt under the Soviet system. There are tales of suffering and redemption, of magical or supernatural intercession (both actively sought for and uninvited), and of dreams, death, and unreality. There are nineteen stories in the collection. I'll share two of my favorites:

One particularly good story is "The New Robinson Crusoes." A family leaves their home to move to a remote village. They work hard to fix the place up, keep a low profile, and establish a sustainable existence growing food or trading with the few elderly and impoverished neighbors. They are cautious and resourceful, and it gradually becomes clear that they are trying to stay one step ahead of... something, but we are never told exactly what. The father starts disappearing deep into the woods each day, leaving the mother and children home to work. He is building a cabin there, a fall-back shelter for when even the small farm in the remote village they are squatting at is not safe. Eventually that comes to pass and they abandon their farm, taking as much as they can carry as more and more refugees arrive and overrun the village. We are never told why this is happening, just left in confusion at the harrowing story that unfolds. It's like a compact version of what Cormac McCarthy tried to do with "The Road," except more real and affecting.

My favorite story in the collection was "There's someone in the house." An old woman comes to believe that her house is haunted, and that the spirit is vandalizing the house and wants to kill her. A shelf falls, and she is certain it was ghost. What makes this story so interesting is that while most of the scary fairy tales are clearly of the supernatural, this one reads more like the woman is insane. In her unhinged state she begins destroying her apartment to prevent the ghost from doing the same. She smashes the TV and throws it out the window. She cuts up her clothes in the closet and tosses them as well. She vandalizes her bed, her dishes, her cupboards, and anything else she sees. She plans to abandon the ruined apartment and become homeless, to avoid the ghost. She drags her reluctant cat out with her, locks herself out of the apartment, and prepares to leave for the streets and life in utter despair.

And then, with her freaked-out starving cat refusing to leave but certain to die if left alone, she hesitates and reconsiders. She has the landlord let her back in to her apartment. She feeds the cat and surveys the damage. The clothes she things she threw away have already been picked over and scavenged, but there are a few things she didn't destroy. There is a bag of old clothes that, with some minor alterations, can be made to fit. The TV is broken, but she discovers her old record player still works, and she still has her books. As the story ends she is excited about all the possibilities of her new lease on life.

It was an incredible story to read, and my two paragraphs don't nearly do it justice. The emotional response evoked by this poor and probably crazy woman living alone, destroying her possessions, helpless and soon to be homeless, and then the brilliant pivot to redemption when she is able to return to her apartment. The old woman who was kind of miserable and complained frequently in the first part is grateful now for every scrap of food and furniture left behind. Every rag of clothing is a gift. She is not simply restored to her previous life she is redeemed, saved, by a trick of the mind. If I could find it online somewhere I would link to it for you.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Yossarian's reviews, check out his blog, This Is Not a Blog.


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