Thursday, November 29, 2012

In Russia, it's hard to tell whether the darkness comes from reality or the old tales

It takes a certain mind to see the stories behind the items and people one passes every day. The seas of the moon. The pattern of the holes in an electric iron. A sock puppet in a counselor's bag. Each of these items and more, when brushed by a touch of magical realism and the mind of Ekaterina Sedia, becomes a tale in her first short story collection Moscow but Dreaming.

Some of the people in this collection are memorable enough to stay with the reader long after the covers are closed. The old man in 'Tin Cans,' confronting the nightmares of his youth every evening in his position as a night watchman. The orphan girl in 'There is a Monster Under Helen's Bed,' rescued from the human monsters of her orphanage in Russia, but unable to escape demons of a different sort. The man in 'Seas of the World,' born of the Caspian and not realizing how dangerous transformation magic can be until it's too late.

Even the objects in the stories burn their place in the reader's memory. The shape of the burns that the racketeers of 'By the Liter' leave on their victims, so like a Kabbalic symbol, that allow the spirit of the newly deceased to wander. The legendary bodies of water in 'A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas' and the societies that inhabit each, so like their names. An elusive, mysterious building in 'The Bank of Burkina Faso,' which is so eager to accept your money, but so reluctant to return it. Even the sock puppet in 'A Play for a Boy and Sock Puppets' has more heart and more drive than one would expect from a toy with buttons for eyes.

Beyond the Eastern European setting that these stories share, there's also a thread of magical realism that loosely ties these works together. In the vein if Isabel Allende and Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Sedia blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Nearly every story in this collection has some form of the supernatural appear at some point, often where the reader least expects it.

Even as these tale engage the reader and draw him in to these magical realms, a few of the stories broke the spell. As wonderful as the imagery and narrative can be, those without a good knowledge of Russian history will be sent scrambling to Google to help make sense of the backdrop. 'Tin Can' in particular sent this reader on an hour-long Wikipedia session, learning about Lavientiy Beria and the secret police of the USSR. Those who didn't live through the Cold War years may be a bit lost at times, but never enough to lessen the enjoyment of the stories at face value.

This isn't a collection to be read in marathon sessions. Doing so would lessen the uniqueness of each story. These should be savored for their individuality, not seen as simply the next story in a book. Each story of Moscow but Dreaming deserves to be examined and contemplated on its own. To do less would be a disservice to the author and the amazing worlds she creates.

Highs: In each story, the reader feels the darkness behind the great fairy tales peeking around the edges, waiting patiently for its chance to come out.

Lows: Because each story is so rich, the volume as a whole seems rather daunting.

Verdict: A perfect book for the reader who rarely has time to sit down for long, as each story will rattle around in back of his mind for days.

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