Alisa Ganieva’s Жених и невеста—which will be known as Bride and Groom for Carol Apollonio’s English translation for Deep Vellum Publishing—feels like a perfect novel to blog about this Valentine’s Day. For one thing, it takes place in summery Dagestan, where the stuffy steppe warmth sounds like the perfect antidote to waking up to frozen pipes in subzero Fahrenheit temperatures. For another, well, given that title, this is a book about, among other things, love and marriage. At least sort of.
So. Patya, a young woman who works in Moscow, returns to her native town. Marat, a young man, does the same thing. They don’t know each other. Marriage is on their family members’ minds. Marat’s parents have even preemptively reserved a hall for his wedding reception, which gives him a deadline of August 31. Will he find a bride—arranged by his parents or on his own?—before the deadline? Meanwhile, Patya’s told by all sorts of Greek-chorus-like aunties that she’s only a year or so away from being an old maid so she’d better take pity on her parents and find a husband fast.
The miracle of Bride and Groom, which was a 2015 Russian Booker finalist and won the Booker’s award for translation into English, is that it shows so much in under 300 pages. Patya tells her story in the first-person; Marat’s is told in the third. Of course they end up meeting. The town has a prison; one famous inmate’s presence there is the talk of the town. There are (obviously!) lots of parallel and intersecting family dramas. There are also cultural and religious debates and confrontations, one of which results in the death of one of Marat’s childhood acquaintances. There’s patriotism, complete with ribbons of Saint George. Amulets coexist with cell phones.
I think what makes everything fit together is that Ganieva’s so good at observing Dagestan through her characters, an ability she uses to great effect in her Salam, Dalgat! (previous post), too. She manages to convey the texture of a very unfamiliar (to me, anyway) place and atmosphere, making wholly unfamiliar situations speak to me through everyday details that fit her characters rather than offering exposition that sounds like it came from an encyclopedia. Marat’s mother, who’s put together a list of possible brides, pronounces one, Sabrina, unfit for Marat because she wouldn’t serve tea. (Ah, gender roles! There’s a lot about that here…) Patya taught me how to use a regular clothes iron and ironing board for styling hair. (I almost wish I had hair worth trying that out on…) There’s a disastrous engagement party that feels like a harbinger. (There’s a taste here.) And characters have behavioral and verbal tics: Patya’s doctrinaire suitor Timur, for example, says the word “cамое” constantly, a lot like “like” or “you know” are used in English. Timur, who’s a youth leader, is comically awful, thinking he’s going to sweep Patya off her proverbial feet after some long-distance emailing; he knows how to teach her how to live properly. Evolution, among other things, would be tossed out her intellectual window.
And then there’s the food. Khinkal is going to get a try in some form—note that this piece mentions a connection between khinkal and marriage—and then there’s chudu, a dish that seems almost like pancake-based quesadillas with all sorts of stuffings. I think I’m getting hungry.
It’s tough to end a tragicomic novel like Bride and Groom, with its many layers of plot elements—not to mention the deadline: you only have until August 31, Marat!—so I think Ganieva did the right thing by opting for an inconclusive, mysterious ending with an element of what I might call magical/mystical/metaphysical realism. Somehow, it feels fitting for her characters and their setting. So, happy Valentine’s Day, everyone?
Up next: Aleksandr Grigorenko’s Mebet, which is set in the taiga, where it’s probably even colder than it is here. After that? I don’t know but I have a wonderful pile of new books waiting for me and it includes Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, which won the 2015 Booker and might come first…
Disclaimers: The usual, which includes having thoroughly enjoyed seeing Alisa Ganieva, Carol Apollonio, and Deep Vellum publisher Will Evans in various places over the years. Of course I’m thrilled for all of them that Bride and Groom has found so much success. Not to mention very relieved that I enjoyed it!