There are two Russias in Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry’s passionate and accomplished debut short-story collection, What Isn’t Remembered, winner of the 2021 Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize. The geographical country, where many of the stories take place, and the mental state of Russianness, which characters carry with them in the diaspora. There is also America, an alluring, often disappointing exile—and there are Americans, mostly well-meaning, who struggle to live with their mercurial Russian lovers, spouses, friends, or children, whose Russianness comprises the psychic ramifications of political and historical traumas going back multiple generations—World War II, Soviet rule, the chaotic break-up of the USSR, or the Armenian genocide, to name a few.
Review: What Isn’t Remembered by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry
The track is too slick, too cold. As the preacher intones Let us drive fast and cheer hard in Jesus’ name amen, the mist is already falling over us, the drivers, the life flight helicopter at rest on its helipad over the rise. Engines fire and the air goes thick with pressure. In minutes the leaders spin into the wall’s invisible give. Unlike Daytona or Talladega, where drivers shimmy from the windows of their wrecks, walking bruises at best—this is a minor crash. Its smolder mingles with exhaust, burning rubber, spent fireworks, cigarette smoke sent into the low cloudbank by a man ten paces past the No Smoking sign. This is New Hampshire: live free or die.
We are dodging icebergs at twenty-five miles per hour. From the bow of our eighteen-foot Zodiac, I try to make sense of the ecosystem I’ve come here to investigate: northern Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coastline. But my customary visual bearings don’t seem to be serving me here in Alice’s Arctic Wonderland, where even the most fundamental rules of spatial arrangement have been upended. I see liquid lying over land, tundra hovering in midair, and chunks of ice floating several feet above the sea. I strain to delineate boundaries between water and sky, solid and gas, near and far. Where I expect borders, I find continuity—gradations of color, shifting shapes, and fluid forms. Reflections are sharper than the objects that make them, forcing me to question which way is up.
Ah, last day of the semester. The professor goes on a long walk into the winter woods near the Highland Park Reservoir, her pale face chapped with cold. She’s had one glass of wine.
OK two and a half. It’s perfect out here! The sky looks pink, sweet and pillowy as seen through bare black branches, and she’s touching as many trees as possible. This is a ritual that had been given to a character in one of the student stories she’d read this term. The story had moved the professor to tears, partly because the kid who wrote it was such a sincere person, so full of effort. He was Italian-Latvian, from South Philadelphia, used a flip-phone, suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, watched ancient re-runs of The Waltons on his laptop, and was the most brilliant of students—like nobody she’d ever taught before. A double major in writing and physics.
Early one morning, when the sky was still dark, Annie locked herself in her room. She turned the key three times, then went to her bed and opened a book.
At half past seven, her mother knocked on her door and told her to get up. When Annie didn’t appear, her mother tried the handle and found the room locked. Half an hour later, she put her ear to the door and heard nothing, not even the loud whisper of the ceiling fan. A strange feeling got hold of her; she knocked and spoke more sharply. “Open!” She slapped the wood with the palm of her hand and began to shout for her husband. “Come quickly! Annie’s not coming out—something has happened to her!”
Before the sea became my journey, it was love,
folktales, it was our origin staring at us,
it was our shadows, then the ships of migration
came, reminding us, that years back, people left
in canoes loaded with hope, with spices, seafarers
who navigated water, holding stars in their bosoms
until the sky became road. We never saw them,
only heard the rumors, only heard they grew wings
A slight wind picks up and moves over the lake, clinking rocks together in the wash. Salvador squints into the darkness. The way his fellow construction workers talked about America’s proximity, he’d half expected to sight the faintest outline of one of its cities’ skylines as a shimmer set deep against the horizon. Instead, there’s only the night and, stretching to meet it, the mumbling water.