Despite long winters and a haunting past, a remote town thrums with life.
The Russian port town of Magadan, a former threshold into the Stalin-era gulags, links the characters in Melnik’s gorgeous debut collection of short stories. Balanced on the eastern edge of Russia, Magadan is home to an eclectic population, including engineers and artists who first worked in the forced-labor camps and then stayed, working side by side with their former guards. Everyone endures deprivation, isolation, resignation. Worse, the past seems to linger in the blood, contaminating relationships and tainting dreams. In the best of her tales, Melnik’s characters—many of whom pop up in more than one story, as Melnik traces the fortunes of friends, relatives and descendants—long for at least a reprieve, if not a transcendent moment. A young wife and mother travels to Moscow for the annual shopping trip, waiting in endless lines for items unavailable back home, such as fresh fruits, school supplies and boots. Can she resist an Italian soccer player who tempts her with a night without drudgery? Craving the freedom she believes marriage offers, a young woman weds a military school graduate posted even further east. Can she make her marriage successful through the sheer force of her will? A mother takes her daughter, beset by mysterious migraines, to visit a witch with curious healing methods. A young boy performing Tchaikovsky finds his thoughts invaded by memories—memories he could not possibly possess himself but which must inhabit the music. Curious about the famous tenor who missed his own celebratory concert, a young woman asks her grandfather to tell her the story of the man’s life. Yet the tale leaves her unsettled about her country’s past and her own future.
Achingly beautiful, this collection signals a writer to watch.