Portraits of Claustrophobic Russian Mothers

Three novellas about family

Penguin Books
Don’t be fooled by the cover, which might suggest droll tales for the era of the boomerang generation. This slim book is the third in a series of translations of the work of a 76-year-old Russian writer whose corrosively grim fiction, suppressed until the 1980s, now inspires comparisons with greats from Chekhov to Solzhenitsyn. To say it stuns is an understatement. The latest collection has a tamer title than its predecessors—There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales (2009) and There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories (2013). But Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s portraits of mothers in extremis will make you reel.

Jammed into cramped Soviet apartments—sharing quarters with estranged husbands, drunken sons, hostile daughters, sobbing grandchildren—Petrushevskaya’s characters get crammed into very few pages, too. Yet where claustrophobic life exposes them to cruelties big and small, they get a chance at liberation within the tight confines of her fiction. There women claim the foreground, and Petrushevskaya often grants them a curiously exhilarating, and disturbing, form of freedom: they flaunt a cold-eyed clarity about those cruelties, both the ones they endure and the ones they commit. For the maternal monologuist of “Among Friends” (1988)—the shocker that closes the collection—the two blur. It doesn’t spoil the plot to say that the mother who leaves her son “choking on blood and snot” aches even as she gloats.