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The Line, by Olga Grushin

Olga Grushin’s second novel is a masterpiece of storytelling. She transports us to what seems Soviet Russia of the 1950s, or a few decades after “the Change.” News is leaked that an émigré composer will be returning for a single, special engagement concert (a literary riff on Igor Stravinsky’s 1962 return). And a ticket line forms in which people wait through an entire year, slowly forming a community of hopeful sojourners, their lives, secrets and passions intertwining as the experience of expectation leads to unexpected revelations.

Aside from the wonderful plot and deeply drawn characters, there is a richness in Grushin’s writing that contains all the senses. We feel the damp cold of her winter evenings, smell the thick soup reducing in the close kitchen, hear the murmur of passing conversations, see the church shadows falling on her characters, taste the crumbly canapes at a secure embassy party. This is a novel to be read slowly, her descriptive power savored: “the low, furry-clawed sounds resumed shuffling up and down invisible stairs like clumsy circus bears...”; “the strengthening wind began to throw heavy hours back and forth like smudged, icy snowballs...”

In the end, the line draws the characters out of themselves. It has, as one of the protagonists reflects, taken them apart, piece by piece, “then put them back together again; but the order of the pieces was subtly different, or else they fit together in a different, looser way, with spaces left between them for air, or light, or music, or perhaps something else altogether, something ineffable that made him feel more alive.”

Exactly what a good novel should do for a reader.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2010