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MOTHER DOLL by Katya Apekina Kirkus Star


by Katya Apekina

Pub Date: March 12th, 2024
ISBN: 9781419770951
Publisher: Overlook

A pregnant woman is contacted, via a medium, by her dead great-grandmother, who was a Russian revolutionary.

Zhenia, frankly, is a mess. Feeling like a “helpless passenger in her own life,” she works as a medical translator for Russians in Los Angeles. Her young marriage is wobbly: She has a history of infidelity and can’t shake the feeling that her husband would rather have married someone else. Back home in Boston, Zhenia’s beloved grandmother Vera is near death, in a near-vegetative state. Into this chaos, two events avalanche: First, Zhenia ends up pregnant by accident. Then, out of the blue, she’s contacted by a New York psychic named Paul, who has a proposition for her. He’s being urgently contacted by the spirit of Zhenia’s mysterious great-grandmother Irina—Vera’s mother—and he wants to relay her narrative to Zhenia in Russian, which he doesn’t speak, so she can translate it into English. Apekina alternates between Zhenia’s and Paul’s increasingly desperate circumstances and the story that Irina tells about her own life with Paul as the mouthpiece. (Literally: Paul crosses into the “cloud of ancestral grief” that Irina exists in with a bunch of other chattering souls, and she opens his mouth and yells into his throat to tell her story to Zhenia.) The secrets that Irina reveals about her coming-of-age in a Jewish family during the Russian Revolution force Zhenia to re-examine her past, her present, and her future. In lesser hands, this narrative nesting-doll structure might have been merely a clever way of parsing intergenerational trauma or the impulse to explore family history as loved ones are born or pass away. But Apekina’s keen portrayals of morally complicated women transcend any gimmickry, and her depictions of Petrograd in the early 20th century feel startlingly present.

Like the Russian nesting dolls that inspired it, this novel reveals layer after layer of poignant delights.