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There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers.

This won the 2010 World Fantasy Award, and was also recommended to me by somebody, although I have forgotten who, but thank you.

It's a themed collection, stories selected from Petrushevskaya's vast and mostly untranslated-into-English body of work on the basis of surreality, magic, mysticism, or general inexplicable content. The selectors have put the stories roughly into subgroups: 'Songs of the Eastern Slavs', 'Allegories', 'Requiems' and 'Fairy Tales'. The selectors point out in their (understated, informative) introduction that the real genre of everything in the book is nekyia, night journey, the genre that we use to describe Odysseus' journey to the underworld, or Lucan's, or any time that someone meets with ghosts or dreams.

That is quite right, because 'fairy tale' has several implications I am not sure these stories want. (For that matter, so does 'scary'.) Also some of these are, apparently, allegories, although I was glad of the heading there, as I would not have been able to tell. Both an allegory and a fairy tale can be a night journey.

And some of these journeys are very dark. A plague descends on a nameless Russian city in one of the allegories, and the only hope that can be plucked from the entire situation is a moral out of folklore: be kind to animals. A girl and her family flee into the country from the nameless catastrophe of the end of the twentieth century, farther and farther from civilization, making their food and shelter with their hands, and yet people always keep coming and leaving small children on their doorsteps, new obligations, new mouths to feed, new responsibilities to the world that will also try to take everything they have. A woman does try to kill her neighbor's baby, in a story that ends in a perfect bitter crescendo of revenge eating itself. Another woman goes to visit a friend and finds her friend living in a house where the landlords who sold it have refused to leave, so that although the rightful owner she drifts through the house unable to move the furniture, wash her clothes, cook her own food; and the landlady is the wife of a god, so that things cannot end at all well.

But there's also a great deal of hope and a great deal of originality, although most hope in the stories I have seen most often before, I think, such as the one of the girl who finds herself on a dark street in a dark coat without a memory; it was done very well but I have read it half a hundred times. There is some religious belief, around the edges, which I like best when it can be left or taken, such as in 'The Fountain House', a story of a father and a daughter that has at least five separate and distinct conflicting readings that are equally valid and likely as to what actually happened, and I like all of them.

And every so often there's something transcendent, such as the astonishing 'There's Someone in the House', which I would rank with 'The Yellow Wallpaper' as a specifically female horror story which can be read as supernatural if you would like it to be, but which is also (in addition and not instead) a portrayal of a very exact kind of madness that a person can be driven to, a madness I've seen the edges of in my own life on occasion and then run frantically in the other direction from, and not met in fiction before this. (I mean the kind where your mother is going to destroy everything you care for so you decide to get there first, for which one's mother does not have to be genuinely present.)

There's only one story in the book that doesn't work at all for me, 'Marilena's Secret', which is annoyingly dehumanizing about overweight people and does not manage to communicate what actually happened in the plot until long afterwards, and I don't get the impression that was meant to be the point. It's also not half as colorful as it's trying to be.

But the rest of these remind me somewhat of the odder turns of Banana Yoshimoto, or the less famous shorts of Angela Carter: night journeys which work on a level sideways from rational analysis, with the recursive logic of dreams. And they are almost entirely the stories of women, or stories about men that are not the usual kind-- this is a book in which there is a story about a man desperate to become a father, which one doesn't see often-- and they are narratively compelling whether or not they turn out to be tales that will stick. I hope more of this writer winds up coming out in English. After the World Fantasy Award, I should think so.


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