Monday, November 11, 2019

Girls Gone Missing: Kozlova’s Rurik and Barinova’s Eve

Where to start? The basics, I suppose: Anna Kozlova’s Рюрик (Rurik) and Liubov Barinova’s Ева (Eve) are both books about young women who disappear, one forever, the other for a hiatus of sorts. Both novels are also described by some readers (and/or publicists!) as thrillers, though after corresponding with a Russian colleague a bit about Eve, I suppose something like “psychological dramas” is probably more apt. Sometimes I think “thriller” puts too much pressure on a book to be a page-turner that has to be read in one sitting. Not that that’s an option for me, given how slowly I read Russian, but Rurik and Eve kept me up at night because I wanted to find out what happened to Marta (in Rurik), Eve (in Eve), and their family members.

Despite the common element of suspense and missing women, the books couldn’t be more different in terms of plot, atmosphere, and tone. I’ve described Rurik as “edgy” (on the first page, there’s mention of how people “пьют, ссут и блюют” – “drink, piss, and puke” – on local trains: the three words transliterate as pyut, ssut, blyuyut, which sounds great but obviously smells awful) with plenty of drinking, sex, a parrot named Rurik, motorcycle riding, and a weird and horrid death. Rurik has tons of verve and a bit of grit, too; it’s both wise and wiseass. It’s a very here-and-now novel examining social mores and wealth (the motorcycle is a BMW, for example, and there’s overseas vacationing) while also depicting the role of the media and Internet in modern life after Marta, a teenager who’s vanished, hitches a ride north with a motorcyclist. She later escapes him (going into the woods, ah, favorite Russian motif!), too, giving two reasons for suspense: a) finding out why she fled the first time and b) wondering if she’ll survive the forest. (Where I was glad there were good insect mentions.) The cast also includes a very modern journalist, a woman who figures everything out, and (of course) there’s a dysfunctional family background.

As there is in Eve: Eve and her brother Herman live with their cold army officer of a father who first has a soldier nanny them – when they go with the soldier into the forest (the forest again!) to cut a holiday tree, Herman’s foot is severely injured by a trap – but then hands them over to their grandmother for care. As an adult, Eve is killed and then, as payback, Herman kidnaps her killers’ daughter and raises her by himself. Told in two timelines, the main source of suspense for me in Eve was in learning how Eve died, finding out Herman’s deep-seated motivations, and seeing what consequences he might face. Meaning: Will he eventually be caught? And why were Eve and Herman so close? Barinova’s writing and plotting are pretty traditional and with Eve’s overall slice of time covering the late Soviet period until the present day, it has a grayer feel, in part because Herman, who becomes a doctor, can’t afford a BMW or overseas travel but also because the novel itself is quieter than Rurik, which felt pretty raucous in many ways. Eve is just plain bleak, though not so bleak that I’d call it chernukha, the dark, dark brand of realism I used to read so much of.

Neither Eve nor Rurik is perfect – both suffer from overly long passages in the middle (thankfully, though, there are no big muddles in the middle) and I thought the feel of much of Eve’s denouement departed too much from the textual logic of everything that preceded it, though the very, very end felt fitting – but, as I’ve mentioned, both books kept me up late, happily reading and wanting to know what would happen next, as decent psychological-dramas-that-verge-on-thrillerdom should. Having relatively recently read Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, which I had to ration out to myself; Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, which I devoured in one evening (in Sam Taylor’s smooth translation); and the beginning of Dorothy Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, which is currently keeping me plodding noirishly on the treadmill, I think it’s safe to say I love novels that play with literary and genre norms, blending suspense and, yes, psychological drama with social issues like loneliness, alcoholism, and class while also straddling the (artificial) boundaries between the (artificial) lands of genre fiction and literary fiction.

Rurik and Eve are similar to those books I read in English: there are broken families and broken social fabrics that essentially generate orphandom in and around transitional times for contemporary Russia, meaning the two books describe personal and social issues while also playing a little with literary and genre norms. Best of all, they’re part of a growing pile of books by youngish writers (Eve is Barinova’s debut) who aren’t afraid to blend – particularly in Kozlova’s case – everything from bits of mysticism and folklore to social commentary and crime. I think I was especially grateful to read two new releases that are so focused on the present-day and late Soviet period rather than the first half of the twentieth century. And to appreciate Kozlova’s sassy delivery, acidic irony, and 18+ content as well as Barinova’s calm, almost plodding and meditative restraint. My biggest regret is that Rurik didn’t make any award shortlists: even with the slight sagginess I mentioned, Rurik feels better composed and more relevant (and interesting!) than some of this year’s other Big Book finalists. I have to wonder if the juries choosing finalists didn’t much admire the edginess and sassiness I so happily lapped up.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I received an electronic copy of Eve from Barinova’s literary agency BGS, for whom I have translated a few brief excerpts of Eve. I bought my copy of Rurik, which a friend brought to me from Moscow. I do want to mention how nice this Phantom Press edition is, thanks to Andrei Bondarenko’s sleek design (which both looked nice and made the text especially reader-friendly for tired end-of-the-day eyes) and thick, creamy paper. Bondarenko’s designs always have nice touches: Alisa Ganieva’s long biography of Lilya Brik (published by Molodaya Gvardia, which opted for nice paper, too) was also especially easy on the eyes, both in terms of aesthetics and ease of reading, thanks to Bondarenko’s body text format and graphic elements. Good book design matters.

Up Next: The two books in English I keep promising, Ganieva’s Lilya Brik biography, a biography of Venedikt Yerofeyev, and Evgeny Chizhov’s new book about nostalgia and memory, which I just started.


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