Dina Rubina’s На солнечной стороне улицы (On the Sunny Side of the Street) is the work of a literary magpie: the novel combines a comfortable nest of a story with shiny devices and descriptive passages that attract attention and embellish. Fortunately, the story underlying all the decoration is engrossing, thanks to the situations and city, Tashkent, in which Rubina places her characters.On the Sunny Side of the Street is, at its simplest, some form of melodrama, the story of a girl, Katya, who survives the blockade of Leningrad and is evacuated to Tashkent. She becomes a criminal and a mother, and her daughter, the difficult Vera, grows up to be an esteemed artist. The two have a difficult relationship that doesn’t improve when Katya tries to kill her own lover, a kindly man whom Vera takes in while her mother is away. Vera finds “Uncle Misha” drunk on the street and brings him home, where he treats her better than Katya ever has.
My favorite passages in On the Sunny Side of the Street involve Katya and Uncle Misha, probably because they bring Rubina further away from characters I’ve already met in her fiction: artists and herself. Many of the dozens of secondary characters – particularly Vera’s father and a woman from the market who takes Katya in – are interesting, too. Rubina also gives a wonderful feel for the multicultural Tashkent, where she grew up.
Sometimes, though, it feels as if Rubina doesn’t trust herself to simply tell a good story. Instead she piles on imagery, exclamation marks, endless ellipses, and first-person metafiction tangents that detract from and even repeat her storytelling. Other techniques, like the novel’s timeline zigzags, distract less, and many motifs, such as classical music and watches, add to the book’s themes. Sometimes I wonder if Rubina tries too hard to use all her memories and ideas as soon as possible, lest she forget them.
Although I can rationalize in several ways the purpose of this fragmentation – to establish commonalities of childhood experiences in Tashkent or creative alter egos – I think a simpler narrative structure could have accomplished at least as much. More important, it also would have felt less as if Rubina, the writer, was trying to seize attention from her own fictional figures. Some of the metafiction passages she includes in On the Sunny Side of the Street feel a bit cheap, particularly a twist of the epilogue that I won’t detail here.
On balance, though, I was more than happy to follow the example of a Russian friend and just make peace with the way Rubina builds her fiction. Most of On the Sunny Side of the Street is an absorbing novel that examines the damage that history, biology, and human abuse heap on us. Rubina shows how we become artists and hoard our memories in various ways to preserve our versions of our pasts and the places where we grow up.
Summary: On the Sunny Side of the Street often kept me in my chair for lengthy reading sessions, despite Rubina’s autobiographical interruptions. Though the novel’s characters don’t feel particularly unusual, Rubina places them in extreme situations that test their emotional limits. This absorbing novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker and the Big Book prizes, offers plenty of room for highly personalized interpretations. Not yet translated into English.