SPECIMEN by Irina Kovalyova


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A first collection that explores intersections between different cultures and between science and love.

The eight stories and novella in Kovalyova’s collection feature characters at the crossroads of two worlds. (The author herself was born in Russia and lives in Vancouver.) Many of the tales are told by Eastern European narrators displaced from home—or missing loved ones who've been displaced. In “Mamochka,” the book’s opener, a Russian woman whose beloved infant granddaughter lives in North America seeks ways to assuage her loneliness. In the title story, a high schooler visits the engineer who donated the sperm she was conceived with. “Gdansk,” a standout story told in numbered fragments, shows the power that travel has in shaping the futures of teenagers living in post–Cold War Russia. This theme emerges again in the novella, The Blood Keeper, about a Russian botany student whose scientist father arranges for her to study in North Korea. Kovalyova is at her strongest here; the North Korean setting is vividly rendered, and the science is not just meticulously researched, but carries great symbolic weight. As the narrator, Vera, conducts her research under the eyes of Communist Party guardians, she enters into an illicit love affair with her botany mentor, and the two must conduct their courtship partly through messages in textbooks about the biology of plants. If the short stories have difficulty measuring up to The Blood Keeper, it may be due to their tendency to prioritize theme over story, as evidenced by the occasional leap in plot (sudden earthquakes, for example, or late-entering characters that change a story’s trajectory). Through it all, though, Kovalyova’s stories remain large-hearted and generous toward their characters as they struggle to make sense of the strange worlds around them.

An uneven, but tenderly wrought, collection.

Pub Date: March 29th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-77089-817-2
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Astoria/House of Anansi Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2016


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