Saturday, November 13, 2021

Big Book Roundup #1: Vasyakina’s Wound, Polyarinov’s Reef, &tc.

I confess that this year’s Big Book reading has been something of a slog. A bit harsh as a lede, I suppose, but there you have it. On the positive side, my reading did start on a good note, with Eugene Vodolazkin’s Оправдание Острова – often known in English as The History of Island, though more literally it would be something like Justification of the Island – in 2020. Thank goodness for Island! It’s a very good book, funny and wise, where form and content complement each other in very Vodolazkonian ways (previous post). I’m looking forward to translating it in full.

But then. Well. The first books I started after the shortlist was announced in June (previous post) brought little enjoyment. Gigolashvili’s Koka lacks the edgy tension and drive of his wonderful Devil’s Wheel (previous post) and felt like a string of pun-driven gags (“gags” in the joking sense). I read 170 pages. I also read nearly 60 pages (which would probably have been at least 80 with a more rational type and page size) of Remizov’s Permafrost, which also lacks momentum. It feels a bit overly familiar, too, since certain aspects of the distant setting and Stalin-era situations reminded a bit too much of Yakhina’s Zuleikha. (I translated Zuleikha; these sorts of situations are occupational hazards.) Permafrost was a disappointment after enjoying Remizov’s Ashes and Dust (previous post) some years ago. In any case, despite the small print and many pages in these two books, fairness says I’ll attempt returns to both, just to be sure I wasn’t too cranky in the summer heat, something that’s wholly possible. Both books have their fans and though I understand why, when the thought of reading a book makes me not want to read, I take that as a sign and set the book aside. Unfortunately, I had even more difficulty with Buida’s The Wyvern’s Gardens and Dmitriev’s That Shore.

Fortunately, however, my fall reading brought two Big Book finalists that I did enjoy: Oksana Vasyakina’s The Wound and Aleksei Polyarinov’s The Reef. They make an interesting pair since both are suspenseful in their own ways: Vasyakina’s because I wondered how her trip would go, carrying the baggage of memories and, literally, her mother’s ashes, and Polyarinov’s because he wrote a three-thread book that braids together plotlines that all lead to a charismatic professor who founds a cult that’s just begging to be cracked. These two books also make an interesting pair because The Wound is such personal autofiction and The Reef feels very research-driven. And so…

In The Wound Vasyakina offers memories of her mother (her mother’s beautiful hands, her mother’s formal kisses, her last days spent with her mother, among other things); her memories of childhood and adolescence, situations like, say, watching The Wall over and over at age five, when she was often left unattended; and her sexuality and relationships. Polina Barskova’s foreword to The Wound discusses the directness of Vasyakina’s writing; I think Vasyakina’s directness is especially piercing because it’s so precise and detailed, so heartfelt and reasoned. There’s existential dread on the airplane. There are her months spent with her mother’s urn, talking with her mother’s remains… Although Vasyakina herself wonders if she’s done too little to structure The Wound, my answer is a questioning “maybe it’s fine” since this is a book where everything fits together, even the essayistic parts (which made me glad to have finished that final volume of Proust!). That’s because, well, yes, Vasyakina knows her material and writes so simply and, yes, so directly and so precisely about things that are hard to talk about. The Wound is heartbreaking, from the tacky cheap flower on her mother’s urn to feelings of loss, some temporary, others more permanent, but Vasyakina’s hope is that writing the book will heal a wound that felt (still feels?) very raw. (I have to wonder if she might think she will write another one in a few years.) Despite the book’s very clear language and direction, I read The Wound fairly slowly: it was as if the simplicity of Vasyakina’s language poured her stories and memories directly into my head and thoughts, encouraging me to consider them, feel them, and experience them, if only as a thought experiment. Inviting and compelling the reader to do all that – and identify with the author, too – is what makes The Wound feel like such successful autofiction.

Polyarinov’s Reef, on the other hand, made me read faster. As I mentioned, three plot threads converge when (I’ll simplify and shorten a lot here since there are many plot turns; watch out for spoilers) two characters (one American, the other Russian) go to a cult’s compound outside Moscow to track down the third and fourth characters (one a member, the other the cult’s leader and, formerly, the American’s anthropology professor, when she was in a U.S. grad school). I read quickly because I genuinely found the novel suspenseful – what will happen when the first two characters I mentioned find the third and the fourth? – but also because, alas, some passages felt unnecessary and/or too long. My back-of-the-book notes include “the book tries too hard” and I think a big part of that angle on my reading is that it felt like Polyarinov wanted to make use of his study of cults (the back of the book lists lots of sources) while sticking too much background and backstory into the novel, violating Elmore Leonard’s rule about omitting the parts people skip. I also had (smaller) trouble with Lily Smith, the American who studied with the professor, whose name happens to be Garin (a surname that constantly, perhaps purposely, reminded me of Alexei Tolstoy and hyperboloids/death rays). Lily seems a little gullible (or naïve?), particularly when she up and decides to fly off to Moscow and then has a meltdown when someone at a pharmacy near her hotel doesn’t speak English. To his credit, Polyarinov still kept me interested by including some eerie rituals, an occasional Heart of Darkness feel, and difficult familial relations. I thought The Reef felt most believable in the tiny splinter of the Venn diagram showing its overlap with The Wound: fraught mother-daughter relationships and the non-choices they bring since we don’t chose our birthplaces or birthparents. In the end, the contrast in The Reef – the almost mechanistic, constructed feel that comes from all the background and the inevitability of certain plot turns versus the human understanding that went into describing some of the characters’ relationships, emotions, and vulnerabilities – made for one of the most interesting aspects of the reading, despite an ending that’s also a little deterministic and involves both self-forgiveness and a mother-daughter discussion where empathy is mentioned. Then again, if I think more anthropologically, I could make a very strong case that even though those contemporary therapeutic rituals and conclusions might initially feel cliched and cloying to some readers, under closer inspection, they seem utterly realistic, not to mention fitting and appropriate alongside other human patterns (like cult behaviors and ancient rituals) that Polyarinov presents to the reader.

Up Next: A new novel by Dimitry Danilov.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. My work translating Vodolazkin. I received all the Big Book finalists in PDF form because I’m a member of the Big Book Award’s Literary Academy but I read printed books that I purchased myself.


  1. Thanks for this update on your reading, Lisa! I've read The Wound too and I agree that it works as a memoir despite the many discursive (excursive?) directions Vasiakina takes. (I may have skipped the poetry in the middle). It's very moving and I'm looking forward to recommending it to friends in Elina Alter's translation, which is coming out in a year or so.

    1. So good to hear from you about The Wound , Russian Dinosaur, I wondered what you thought but didn't want to skew my post! It sounds like we read it very similarly. (To be honest, when I was writing, I absolutely forgot about the poetry... I did read but it didn't stick with me at all. Of course that is not atypical, given how prosaic I am!:))

  2. I add my thanks; these descriptions of novels are invaluable.

    1. You are welcome, Languagehat! I'm glad the posts are helpful.