‘There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales’ is a collection of thrilling and mysterious short stories by Russia’s best-known and most controversial living author, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Amongst a group of writers whose work was banned from being published until the fall of the Soviet Union, Petrushevskaya uses enthralling tales to bring to life, the collapse of relationships and values in the post-war era of Soviet Russia. With a twist of course.
The book is divided into four parts, as described by the Introduction, they are: “Songs of the Eastern Slavs” –dark, surreal vignettes told in the manner of urban folk tales. “Allegories” – including two apocalyptic stories, some of Petrushevskaya’s best known, about the collapse of the social-political order. “Requiems” – an older and gentler cycle that explores human relationships under duress and after death. And finally, “Fairy Tales” or “real fairy tales”, as Petrushevskaya calls them. The introduction itself is something you should not skip past. Petrushevskaya has faced many obstacles over her career as a writer. An insight into the life of the author, her struggles and her stories (most of her work has never even appeared in English), it prepares and excites you for what you are about to experience, without spoiling the tales themselves.
While I wish I could describe every story in this book for you, I’d much prefer if you experienced it for yourself. Each and every tale is just as good, if not better than the last. The characters find themselves in unusual situations, often before or after tragedy, and usually without any memory of how they got to be there. The bleak, dark, depressing and sometimes gruesome tales, often make you feel slightly ill, yet also sympathetic, while some are even sweet at times, similar to fantasy. One could perceive these tales as those of a strange, twisted and disturbing nature. But the stories of jealous, vengeful neighbours, rude, suicidal teenagers with overbearing parents trying to make better lives for their children, grieving fathers trying desperately to hold onto their children, and wives watching their homes and husbands crumble, are really those of love, belonging, devastation and conquest.
There isn’t a large amount of imagery used to set the scene. Instead Petrushevskaya uses the emotions felt by the characters to describe the situation, and keep the stories flowing. The mystery amongst the plots is what keeps you on the very edge of your seat. Loose ends are rarely tied. Leaving the reader to interpret for themselves, what might have really happened in the end. You never quite know what is going on. And when you think you just might have figured it out, there will be a twist to change it all.
These ‘Scary Fairy Tales’ give us a small insight into Soviet Russia, an age that a lot of today’s younger generations have/will never experience. It may not be a realistic trip through time, but it is definitely an interesting, exciting and confusing one. The reader most likely won’t find themselves relating to characters, but this doesn’t deter you from the book. It’s not about being relatable. It’s all about the plot, the emotions and the intrigue. It’s the feeling of wonder felt afterwards, when you’re not left with your Hollywood ending.
Easy to read and stimulating from beginning to end, I’d recommend it to those who like to step out of the norm every once in a while, readers who like to be left with their jaws dropped by shocking twists and mysterious endings. I wouldn’t however, recommend reading these ‘Fairy Tales’ before bed time.
Review by Kate Collier