Friday, May 02, 2014

A Nuanced Look At Life In Siberia - Review of "Snow In May" by Kseniya Melnik

In terms of capturing sensuality, Kseniya Melnik reminds me of a young Nabakov.  Now living in El Paso, Texas, Ms. Melnik grew up in Eastern Siberia in a town that was at the heart of the notorious Soviet Gulag Archipelago.  After Stalin's death, the Gulag was dismantled, and that part of Siberia became an academic and technological center.  In order to entice workers to live and work in Magadan, the regional capital, the Soviet government paid wages that were sometimes twice the going rate in the rest of the country. As a result, Magadan attracted a motley crew of residents, many of whom populate these stories.

Melnik writes about these people in a series of short stories in "Snow In May."  Many of the same characters show up in several of the stories, seeming to walk out the back door of one story only to show up on the front porch of the next story.  This continuity of characters makes this collection a more satisfying set of short stories than is often the case.  This phenomenon also creates a bit of a literary jigsaw puzzle, inviting the reader to figure out just how each character fits into the framework of the other men, women and children who populate this book.

Some of the stories are set in Magadan and reflect profoundly on what life was life in that frozen land.  Other stories are set in Moscow, Alaska, and North Dakota.  In these stories, the lives of those who left Siberia are described, as well as the lingering effects and remaining relationships they share with those who stayed in Russia. The overall effect of the book is to give the reader a very nuanced and almost cinematic feel for what it was like to grow up in this remote corner of the world.

Ms. Melnik's writing is clear, evocative and a delight to read.  The many layers of relationships are revealed like the nesting doll Matryoshkas depicted on the book's cover.  Hers is a voice well worth listening to.



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