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Review: Snow in May by Kseniya Melnik

 

 
Overview
 

Highlights: Russian music, proverbs, and foodstuffs abound, and you can feel the bleak cold of the extreme northeast. “Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas” recalls E.M. Forster and O. Henry, while “The Witch” has a fairy tale’s resonance.
 
Synopsis: A collection of nine linked short stories about family, music, medicine, and the legacy of Stalinist oppression. Most are set in the northeastern Russian town of Magadan, though America often provides a useful counterbalance.
 
Genre:
 
Rating:
 
Plot
A-


 
Writing
A


 
Characters
A


 
Fun Factor
B+


 
Reading Recommendation
A+


 
Total Score
A
13/ 14


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Positives


Several stories focus on three female generations of one family; it is a pleasure to spot the threads joining the narratives. The theme of finding happiness by carving a logical narrative out of the chaos of life will resonate with any reader.

Negatives


Although the inclusion of Russian vocabulary lends authenticity, even with a short glossary at the end the foreign words prove confusing, as do the characters’ nicknames. A few stories (especially the last one) feel on the long side.


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Posted May 12, 2014 by

 
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Kseniya Melnik grew up in Magadan, Russia but moved to Alaska at age 15. In her debut short story collection, Snow in May, she reflects on the past half-century of Russian history through the experiences of ordinary people coping with family and marital strife, medical trauma, and crises of meaning. “Magadan was famous for having been the center of the cruelest of Stalin’s camps…the most remote island in the notorious Gulag Archipelago,” Melnik writes. The town is thus not only of personal significance, but also a metaphorical tie to wartime tragedies.

snow in mayChronologically the first story, “Strawberry Lipstick” is set in 1958 and finds Olya both jilted in love and rejected by her chosen college. She settles for Alek and follows him into military barracks, but soon realizes she’s made a mistake when he starts gambling their money away. Olya bitterly recalls her sister’s wry proverbs: “Bride has an axe, groom is barefoot” and “A bad husband’s wife is always an idiot.” When Alek’s behavior turns violent, she escapes along with their daughter, Marina, and trains as a doctor in another town – thus paving the way for more stories featuring her descendants.

Indeed, eagle-eyed readers will remember a character named Marina in the second story, “Closed Fracture.” Tolik, retired to California after years working as an aviation engineer in Anchorage, gets a phone call from childhood friend Tolyan, who still lives in Magadan. This unexpected voice from his past prompts him to recall his years in Russia: the skiing accident that left him with a bad leg; meeting his wife Marina at a Black Sea sanatorium; and his and Tolyan’s diverging experiences of marriage and fatherhood. Looking back, Tolik isn’t always sure he’s made the right decisions – “But only in solitary confinement does memory become a merciless editor, cutting a bearable story out of the ever-accumulating mess of days.”

Five of Melnik’s stories are modified coming-of-age narratives set in the 1990s. Music is a frequently recurring element in these near-past tales. In “The Uncatchable Avengers,” the pupils of Magadan Children’s MusicSchool #1 put on a televised Tchaikovsky festival. One of the amateur pianists, Dima, finally gets through his piece on the fourth attempt – after some excruciating flubs reminiscent of the childhood performance memory in Richard Powers’s recent music-themed novel, Orfeo.

Dima shares a piano teacher with Tolik and Marina’s daughter, Sonya, who appears in two of the later stories. Sonya narrates “Summer Medicine,” set in 1993 during a stay at her grandmother Olya’s clinic. Longing to be a doctor herself, Sonya follows the staff around and makes up some peculiar ailments of her own. The hospital setting and precocious protagonist reminded me of Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, another wonderful debut with an Eastern European setting.

In “Our Upstairs Neighbor,” the (somewhat over-long) last story, Sonya is disappointed when legendary singer Vadim Makin fails to show up for his ninetieth birthday tribute concert. Instead, her grandfather, Deda Misha, recounts Makin’s unusual life story for her. Makin, a closeted homosexual who spent time as a prisoner, had been his upstairs neighbor in Magadan. Music serving as a tonic for heartache links this story to “Rumba,” in which a middle-aged dance instructor falls for one of his young students. The latter story’s bittersweet tone reminded me of Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me, a novel of love and disappointment in the world of professional ballet.

Kseniya Melnik

Kseniya Melnik

“Kruchina,” the next-to-last story, also dwells on this uneasy balance between music and sadness. Masha is visiting her daughter Sveta, a Russian mail-order bride, in her new home in Fargo, where she and her daughter Katya have joined Brian and Brittny to create a new, blended family. Masha begs Katya to perform a song with her at their green card celebration party: a somber folk tune called “Kruchina,” an archaic word for grief – “the existential sorrow about a woman’s lot.” This story is, to me, the most successful juxtaposition of Russia and America, and the clearest exploration of the immigrant’s emotional impasse: “The longer I am away from Russia, the more surreal it all seems,” Sveta says. “You’re a different kind, Katya,” Masha observes. “You live in two worlds. Imagine, each foot standing on a globe beach ball.”

The two stand-out stories for me are, in some ways, the least representative ones. “The Witch,” set in 1989, is narrated by Alina, whose mother and grandmother take her to a traditional healer for her migraines. Alina makes believe that she is entering a fairy tale, with the medicine woman taking on the role of Baba Yaga, the witch in a forest cottage. Her imagination contrasts beautifully with the darker reality of the headaches – and possible Chernobyl fallout.

My favorite story of all, though, is “Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas.” It is 1975 and Tanya is flying from Magadan to Moscow for a major shopping trip. In a time of shortages, she needs to stockpile food and clothing for her husband and sons. On the plane, Tanya is propositioned by a player from the Italian soccer team, who invites her to meet him at his Moscow hotel at 8 pm. All day, as Tanya gathers supplies and chats with Auntie Roza and her apartment mates, she’s pondering the offer. “Remember that the State disapproves of intermingling with foreigners,” one nosy neighbor warns. Should she take the chance on a fantasy romance?

Tanya sets off for the hotel but stops short when she sees a street seller with crates of bananas. Her sons have never tasted the fruit before, and she loves the thought of treating them to an exotic delicacy. Will she have time to wait in line for the bananas and still meet her would-be Latin lover? Like one of E.M. Forster’s Italian-set novels (Where Angels Fear to Tread or A Room with a View – which made the #1 spot on my Italian reading list), this story pivots on the disparity between Italy, with its hot-blooded passion, and the stoic reality of Soviet existence. In the end she doesn’t get either thing she wished for, but realizes she’s content with what she already has – a message that echoes the wisdom of a classic O. Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi.”

 
Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia (Photo by David Means, via Wikimedia Commons).

Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia (Photo by David Means, via Wikimedia Commons).

Melnik brings Soviet Russia to life with a wealth of vivid detail: “hoar-frosted leaves falling with a jingle” in winter; crowded communal apartment buildings; shared experiences of privation and pain. Yet there is also something tender in her depictions of the place and its people; she lovingly weaves in proverbs, songs, and Russian vocabulary. Food is another prime trigger of memories: “The snow smelled like freshly cut cucumbers,” Deda Misha is “full of stories, like a barrel full of pickled cabbage,” and Auntie Roza serves Tanya “the perfect nostalgic borsch.”

I highly recommend these short stories; read them this May (perhaps as a pairing with Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart’s delightful memoir of growing up in Russia in the 1970s), and then keep an eye out for what this very talented young author comes up with next.

 

Snow in May releases on May 13th. With thanks to Caroline Nitz of Henry Holt for sending a copy of the novel. I was provided with a free ARC in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

Snow in May: Stories


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Rebecca Foster

 
American transplant to England. Former library assistant turned full-time freelance writer and book reviewer. Check out all my articles.


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