A young Azerbaijan-born Jew tries to escape those ethnic and racial modifiers, with limited success, in Grjasnowa’s flinty debut.
Masha, the narrator of this trim but forceful novel, was born in Baku and has vivid memories of the violent ethnic strife among Azeris, Armenians and Russians there in the early 1990s. As the novel opens, she’s a young woman living in Frankfurt with Elias, a German Christian, and working as a translator (she’s fluent in five languages). But when Elias dies from an infected leg injury, Masha is cast adrift. She reconnects with Muslim friends and decides to take a job in Tel Aviv, which exposes her to the entrenched Jewish and Palestinian factions there. “I didn’t want a genocide to be the key to my personality,” she says, but past injustice is a raw wound wherever she goes, with whomever she meets. After falling for a relatively carefree Israeli, Ori, she’s increasingly attracted to his sister, Tal, who’s a more vociferous activist on behalf of Palestinians; the two become symbols of the opposite poles that Masha strives to avoid. Grjasnowa has endowed Masha with a caustic sense of humor that doesn’t shortchange the grief she’s suffered as a child or after Elias’ death, and her frustration with being boxed in by identity politics is palpable. Grjasnowa is also skilled (via Bacon’s translation) at describing Israel’s monuments, landscapes, checkpoints and bars in clear, simple strokes. The novel’s chief flaw is that the people in Masha’s orbit are sometimes underdrawn—we hardly know Elias’ character, or Masha’s depth of feeling for him, before he’s cut down. Even so, the novel closes on a note that reveals the fullness of her childhood anguish, bringing the story to a downbeat but effective end.
A thoughtful, melancholy study of loss.