Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel
Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel by Yelena Akhtiorskaya (Riverhead, 320 pp.)
Readers often assume that a first novel is autobiographical. Especially in the case of Yelena Akhtiorskaya, Russian-born author of Panic in a Suitcase, since she shares roots in Odessa and Brighton Beach with her major characters. Akhtiorskaya, a 30-year-old who is a sly, no-holds-barred writer, explores the confounding life of émigrés from Russian-speaking Ukraine trying to build new lives in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa.
The book spans two periods. It begins in 1993 when Pasha Nasmertov, a well-known poet and the last family member in Odessa, leaves the motherland to go to Brooklyn to visit his mother, Esther, the 65-year-old family matriarch who is stricken with breast cancer. Fifteen years later, young Frida, the poet’s niece, on a short hiatus from medical school, flies to Odessa in search of herself, only to find a perplexing and vexing world.
The fall of communism and the rise of globalization are the backdrop to the exploration of the divide between the old world and the new, and while the chasm is deep, the bridge from one to the other is just a plane ticket away. Or: Unrealistic optimism meets chronic alienation.
In biting, hilarious and colorful prose, with one original metaphor after another and many descriptive adjectives cascading out with startling frequency, Akhtiorskaya breathes life into the splintered Nasmertov family and their uneasy assimilation into America.
“Filth [and] dreariness didn’t bother him,” the author says of Pasha, making his first visit to Brighton Beach. “But five [restaurants] in a row called Odessa did.” Here is the author describing the Nasmertovs’ view: “The kitchen window looked out on the ocean, which had the cast-aside air of a large piece of grandparents’ furniture thrown to the curb. Grandparents put plastic covers on sofas so butts and sweaty palms wouldn’t damage the fabric, and children sat on the loud sticky plastic. The ocean seemed to be inside such a plastic cover and somewhere at the back there was a zipper that could be undone.”
From the outset, this novel of displacement spares few characters. By the age of 10, Pasha “had already demonstrated a catastrophic intolerance for the idiocy of others.” At 20, he converted to Russian Orthodoxy “to stave off tendencies inherited from a line of depressives.” His conversion, Akhtiorskaya writes, “was bound to remain an open wound in the family flesh, susceptible to infection.” In Brooklyn, Esther mobilizes for a beach outing and packs enough food and drink to nurture a family going on a journey—although the Atlantic Ocean is but a few steps from their door.
Marina, Frida’s mother, describes a demoralizing job cleaning a home for wealthy Hasidim. Their wall-to-wall carpets, the narrator says, “were like a bib for the house, soaking up everything that never made it to the mouth.”
In the second segment of the book, in Odessa in 2008, Frida discovers that her Uncle Pasha has aged and is out of touch. He always looks “like he’d barely escaped a house fire.”
When Frida travels to the countryside to her family’s former vacation home, she finds that the dacha, now in the hands of Pasha’s ex-wife, has become a small mountain of rubble.
This tale of two civilizations and two cultures brings important issues to the fore in a compelling way, but it doesn’t have a satisfying ending. But, then, neither do many things in life.
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