Story collection by KRISTINA GORCHEVA-NEWBERRY
Review by JULIA LICHTBLAU
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.
Most of these sixteen stories have appeared in prestigious literary journals and center on Generation Perestroika—those who came of age in the decline and aftermath of the Soviet Union, the 1980s and 1990s. This isn’t a linked collection in the sense of recurring characters or a single through-line. But all the stories explore exile, abandonment, trauma, parenthood, failed marriage, love, and sex, in various combinations—and some, virtuosically, contain the whole array.
Gorcheva-Newberry, a Russian-Armenian who lives in the U.S. and writes exclusively in English, displays her remarkable ear and range in the voices that populate this book— old and young, men and women, Americans and Russians, regular folks and highly educated ones, as well as a choral “we” of orphaned Russian children in “Beloveds,” and an eroticized child’s tale voice in “Simple Song #9.” (“Boy meets Girl…Boy desires Girl… He imagines Girl’s tan slim body coated in beach sand he’ll lick off her grain by grain.”) Gorcheva-Newberry shifts between poetic evocations of nature, wry asides, and explicit eroticism without losing narrative drive or energy. The narrative voices are so vivid that I often felt as if I were hearing the stories read aloud.
Every language has its timbre. I studied Russian years ago, and while I never became fluent, what stuck with me was the timbre of the language, its deep-chested musicality, which Gorcheva-Newberry manages to convey in English. How? Hard to say without resorting to clichés about Russian soul, but certainly rhythm is part of the trick, best illustrated by the tender “Beloveds.” This gorgeous and original story speaks to the plight of Russian orphans at the end of the Soviet era as piercingly as a case study. The story, which begins and ends on Maslenitsa, the Russian Orthodox holiday preceding Lent and celebrated with pancakes, butter, and jam, is composed like a freely structured folk song, alternating narrative and refrain. “We dream about beautiful homes and perfect families… We dream our mothers still love us and that one day, not too far in the future, they’ll be knocking on our doors with armloads of toys and candy.” “We don’t remember our family names or what our mothers called us, what songs they sang or bedtime stories they told us.” “We imagine our braids as beautiful as the stems of bright, golden wheat on the old Soviet posters…”
The narrative takes us through the life cycle of the orphan—abandonment, orphanage, adoption fantasy, life on the streets—and back to the next Maslenitsa in the orphanage, where:
Sadness spreads over our hearts like batter over hot skillets as we continue to stare out the windows and wait for tender green leaves to unfurl on trees. Somewhere, across the street, is a perfect home, a perfect family, a perfect kid.
Somewhere is our mother.
The music in this collection is not only in Gorcheva-Newberry’s voice. Musicians, music-lovers, and music are a leitmotif in many of the stories. Two take their titles from jazz standards, “All of Me” and “No Other Love.” Writers and books, too, are touchstones—Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in particular, though Mikhail Lermontov and Alice Munro get cameos. The title story, the most abstract, pays both musical and literary homage in a fluid exploration of marriage, virtuosity, desire, and time. Mana, a Russian-born former pianist, married to an American cellist, sleeps once with her husband’s female musical partner, Tori, a brilliant and impassioned pianist. Mana’s marriage breaks up, and Tori ends up marrying a man. Still, the afternoon with Tori remains the apotheosis of desire for Mana. An experience so consuming that the static institution of marriage doesn’t compare. The story skips ahead like a stone over water to an undefined point in the future where Mana, living a monastic existence in Brooklyn with her grand piano and a mattress, rereads To the Lighthouse and understands how she ended up at this point.
In “The Suicide Note,” a young Russian man, Vlad, working in a bodega in Brooklyn, befriends a woman whose groceries he delivers and who says her artist son is coming for the holidays. The son is dead, however—a suicide, Vlad learns from a co-worker. The woman, a refugee from Germany in World War II, shows him her son’s paintings and books, including To the Lighthouse, which leads to a discussion of Woolf’s suicide. Vlad, a university dropout and counterfeiter of Levis in Russia, isn’t artistic but Woolf’s suicide and the woman’s passion for art—through her hidden pain—move him. His own family in Russia had no such psychic refuge.
High culture—i.e., being conversant with the European canon—is a dividing line between Russians and Americans in some of the stories—a dig at American culture that brings on the wince of stereotyping but rings true, all the same. In “All of Me,” two married women, one Russian-born, one American, in Roanoke, Virginia, are opposites. Norma, the American, likes chick lit and light jazz, which goes with her blond hair, tight jeans, and unabashed sexuality. Her very name invokes va-va-voom blond sex appeal. (Norma Jeane was Marilyn Monroe’s given name.) The unnamed narrator is dark-haired, a writer. She tries to interest Norma in literature, classical music, and Norma is pretty game. She goes with the writer to readings and concerts and asks pointed questions. But what they enjoy most is sexual banter. The writer is intensely attracted to Norma—to the point of fantasizing about Norma having sex with her husband, and when Norma confesses she’s no longer interested in sex with him, it seems the women might have an affair. Norma’s comment on a passionate Chopin piece brings up George Sand’s bisexuality and their attraction, which the writer shuts down, unable to move from fantasy into infidelity, a new sexuality. Eventually, the two marriages break up, and Norma marries the writer’s ex-husband, with whom she had slept, turns out. The writer’s oldest son marries Norma’s oldest daughter. At some point, the writer sees Norma in a store. She has lost her country-singer sexiness. But she has everything else. The Russian woman, transplanted alien tissue, has been rejected. As the song goes: “You took the part that once was my heart, so why not take all of me.” “You” might be Norma, her husband, or America.
Using a classic as a prism or scaffold for a new story is a tradition as old as story-telling, and there are as many approaches as there are writers. Retellings, sequels, prequels, invocations, challenges are all fair game. Gorcheva-Newberry’s approach in this book is to make her characters lovers of certain works of art, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse more than any other—an act of literary homage. You don’t have to have know these works to appreciate Gorcheva-Newberry’s stories. But the author’s love for these works breaks through the fourth wall and invites us to do so.
Many of Gorcheva-Newberry’s readers will know To the Lighthouse. I was unfamiliar with Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G minor before reading “What Isn’t Remembered.” Victor, Mana’s husband, and Tori perform the Rachmaninoff, which Gorcheva-Newberry describes as heartbreaking, inexhaustible, “perhaps the hardest piece ever written for the piano.” Victor believes women can’t play Rachmaninoff only to be outclassed by Tori in performance. I suspect a musically knowledgeable reader would have an even more visceral reaction to Victor’s sense of his innate male superiority (“small female hands”) and Tori’s serene mastery in performance. But no musical training is needed to understand Mana’s impression that his fingers produce “the kind of metronomic cadence no old marriage escapes.”
I last read To the Lighthouse in 2010—as the train ticket I found between the pages of my copy confirmed. I reread it and was glad to relive Woolf’s oceanic language, her ability to be almost simultaneously in multiple time frames. I also appreciated the interiority of “What Isn’t Remembered” more after re-reading To The Lighthouse. The character Mana identifies with—the one Gorcheva-Newberry invokes most—is Lily Briscoe, the painter, who struggles with doubt, love, singleness, and art while comparing herself to the beautiful Mrs. Ramsay, wife and mother of eight. A recurring image is Lily’s painting, on which she paints a line signifying before and after. Yet, Gorcheva-Newberry needs no assist from Woolf to convey that the afternoon with Tori changed Mana irrevocably.
Woolf and other artists play a different role in “The Suicide Note,” which has qualities of a fable or parable with its themes of loneliness, kindness, and Christmas and the rapport between Vlad, the Russian grocery delivery guy, and his grieving customer. After the woman discourses on composer John Cage and Woolf, Vlad googles Woolf’s suicide note and reads To the Lighthouse. (Obviously, this isn’t your typical New York grocery delivery.) At its essence, the story is about connection. Art is a stepping stone that enables these distant people to approach each other.
Gorcheva-Newberry is evidently a writer who has had her own life-changing experiences with art and isn’t shy about saying so. Would Vlad, the delivery guy, feel this way? Ah, but it’s December, the darkest time of the year, when miracles are desperately awaited, even expected.
In “Boys on the Moskva River,” the opening story and one of the most touching, the narrator’s dead brother, the favored son, was a gangster whose vulgarity and thuggish taste would earn him a role in any mafia movie. For their mother’s fiftieth birthday, he had her dolled up and delivered like an escort in a black Mercedes to her party, featuring a stringy-haired John Lennon impersonator. The gangster brother’s legacy includes a luxurious apartment and a previously unknown little boy, delivered like a package after the funeral by his own mother, who disappears. He becomes the sun and the moon in the mother and brother’s life — their relationship is adorable and funny and heartbreaking. When the narrator’s estranged father kidnaps the child for ransom, he relates all this in a resigned tone that says it’s understandable in the world we live in. But retrieving the nephew exorcizes the narrator’s own paternal rejection and signals a rebirth. He—the narrator—will end up in America, in medical school, “veering toward cardiology, the science of the heart.” Now, of course, he must leave his nephew behind—with his mother, the child’s adoring grandmother—to do so. The heart, again.
Finishing What Isn’t Remembered, I was left with the resonance of Gorcheva-Newberry’s voice and the fragility of nostalgia as a refuge. Sure, the past wasn’t all that great, but it had certain values one could hold onto. Art, if not democracy. Functioning government, if not art. In the end, we have only each other. And not always. Still, we slog on and take pleasure where we can—art, music, books—including this vivid bouquet of stories.
Julia Lichtblau’s essays, criticism, and fiction have appeared in American Fiction, The American Scholar, Commonweal, The Common, Blackbird, Narrative, The Florida Review, and elsewhere. She was book reviews editor of The Common for seven years, taught writing about business and the economy at Drew University, and was a reporter and editor in New York and Paris for BusinessWeek and Dow Jones. She has an MFA in fiction from Bennington College.