There Once Was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby
Reading There Once Was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, the fantastic collection of stories from Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, was similar to finding a long-lost friend. My goal in writing this column is to illuminate how paranormal narratives interact with subversive social behavior, specifically to feminism and women’s issues. Petrushevskaya has written a spooky, compelling collection of short stories that does just this -- her folktales break down social constraints, point out political hypocrisy, and highlight the secret heartbreak of all people. What more could you want?
Petrushevskaya, according to translators Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, is “the only indisputable canonical writer currently writing in Russian today.” Wow. Well, I feel out of it. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize, and she’s also a playwright. One story, “The Fountain House,” about a father who journeys to the afterworld to retrieve his daughter who has been killed in a terrorist bombing, was published last year in The New Yorker. This book marks her first major American publication.
The collection opens with the story of a military man whose wife dies. She then appears to him in a dream, telling him his party card was accidentally buried with her, and that he can come and retrieve it on one condition: that he not lift the veil covering her face. Of course, after going through the trouble to dig up his wife, the man brushes a worm off her cheek, and when he wakes he discovers his arm is seriously injured and must be amputated. The first story is wonderful introduction to the series -- a little oral history, myth, very Twilight Zone-y -- these stories are Gogol meets Shirley Jackson.
What’s incredible is how much Petrushevskaya is able to accomplish in such short space -- on average, these stories run about three pages long. But the characterization and mood is worthy of a Joycean-length novel. She divides them into categories: Songs of the Eastern Slavs, Allegories, Requiems, and Fairy Tales. People are saved by ghosts (“The Shadow Life”), they outwit evil spirits (“The Miracle”), and die trying to find happiness. The State (with a capital S) plays an unmistakable rolling shadow over their lives -- men are in constant fear of being drafted, babies are abandoned, families starve (“The New Robinson Crusoes”), and in “Hygiene,” no one comes to help when a mysterious plague overtakes a village. While the source of some of this misfortunate is unexplainable (call Fox Mulder) -- Petrushevskaya suggests that “The State” is like a vengeful spirit. It follows these people everywhere, invisible, but always in control.
In one of the most moving stories, “My Love,” a man falls out of love with his wife only to realize how much she means to him as she’s dying. In fact, several of the pieces have little or nothing to do with the ghostly -- but remain eerie in that Petrushevskaya knows exactly what disturbs us, supernatural or not. Several stories, including “The Father” feature an angelic or ghostly intercessor -- someone who tells these characters what they need to do to solve their problem and then promptly vanishes. A man who can’t find his children is sent to a train station by an old woman, where he conveniently finds a baby and another woman in search of a baby and they return on the train as a family, forgetting how they met. Like receiving a phone call from a ghost, these messengers deliver a chance for happiness, an explanation, and even rescue.
Other stories emphasize the transition between life and death. In “There’s Someone in the House,” an old woman, convinced that a poltergeist has invaded her home, smashes everything to bits, only to return and realize there’s nothing there. Petrushevskaya closes the story by saying “She’s decided to live.” And in the chilling final story, “The Black Coat,” a young woman with amnesia enters a dark apartment only to find another lost woman with matches. The two discover they are wafting in the limbo between life and death and must choose a direction before the matches run out. In these stories, living life is a choice, and Petrushevskaya’s protagonists always need a little help walking away from the light.
I would love to summarize every single story and explain its brilliance, but I’d rather you go out, buy this book, and read it for yourself. It’s simply one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time.