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14 November 2018

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Masha Regina

Vadim Levental (One World, $22.99)
Translated by Lisa C. Hayden

The first 30 pages of this compelling novel draw you in with a vivid story of flight: the title character Masha’s unlikely escape from her parents and their small town to attend an art school in St. Petersburg.

We learn early on that Masha is an exceptional person – brave, persistent, passionate. Then we are swept into the tale of her first love, which is complicatedly wrapped up in her love for learning, for achievement, for what will become her life’s work.

The pacing and style of the novel is, well, novel. The author frequently drops out of second person narrative to step back and speak directly with the reader about the story, or about storytelling itself, or on life (less frequently there are also unexpected first person passages). It is a bit jarring, but also refreshing. And rather Russian.

Throughout, the writing is complex and beautiful (a challenge well met by translator Hayden) and there are many memorable passages, like this one early in the book:

Women are immortal. Only men are mortal. Masha’s grandmother and Masha’s mother’s grandmother and grandmother’s grandmother all live in Masha, around Masha, and mumble her name with toothless mouths.

Or this description of a summer visit to her hometown:

The people here valued immobility, changes of season, and what was fatty. Lying on the sofa, Masha felt like a squash in a raised vegetable bed, ripening with the earth’s juices. The sleep that had filled her body was agonizing and ferocious.

Or this summer scene, later in the book:

Summer’s fattening up on the paper. Leaves juicy with green blood hang from the trees, a curtain sighs in a window, a bench under the sun smells of varnish, an old woman squeezes her knees to hold the flaps of her robe and fishes in her pocket for sunflower seeds, delivering some to her mouth with one hand and using the other to drop seeds on the ground, where babbling pigeons with mean eyes mill around in the dust.

That the writing is so cinematic is fitting. We learn early on that Masha is to become a world-famous movie director, whose films are woven into and from the texture of her life. What is more, Masha often feels that her life is arced into a film she has written: “a game whose outcome – and even every single move – was known in advance.”

But while Masha’s work is brilliant, her life is less in her control than she thought. So, like many Russian movies, the ending of this powerful Russian novel about a creative, passionate life refuses to be tied up neatly in a bow. And that makes it all the more real and impactful.


— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sep/Oct 2016