Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskya

5 stars5/5

Wow – what a spooky and unexpected little collection this is! Possibly, sandwiching my sleeping time with reading Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Through the Wall was a little ill-considered as I had some slightly odd dreams last night.

Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Penguin Books, 2011 edition, paperback, 69 pages - review copy.

I had never heard of the author, although Petrushevskaya is considered to be one of Russia’s greatest living writers and was so controversial that for decades, her writing was banned in the Soviet Union. Reading stories like this make me grateful for whoever decided to translate them and I am curious to read the disturbingly entitled There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby which is a collection of nineteen short stories.

 

I’m tempted to liken Petrushevskya’s stories to those of Angela Carter, because they are dark fairy tales, reminiscent of the style of those in The Bloody Chamber. However, the tales in Through the Wall feel much more of this world – albeit this world, seen through a distorted glass.

The Cabbage Patch Mother for example is the tale of a woman who has a tiny child named Dewdrop, who never grows. She is told to set her aside and forget her. Later she discovers that Dewdrop, who she placed amongst the leaves of a cabbage has become a full-size, mewling, clumsy real-life baby. This was the story I found most heart-breaking, as it is evidently an allegory for the experience of a woman who has undergone an abortion in the past and can’t forget the baby she might have had.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Click the image to read a short interview with the author in the LA times

Marilena’s secret is the story of a woman who is “so fat she couldn’t fit in a taxi, and when going into the subway took up the whole width of the escalator.” It turns out that Marilena is in fact two normal sized women, turned into one by a wizard. She becomes rich and famous for her unusual stature but begins to lose her real inner-selves as she is encouraged to become a poster girl for her husband’s dieting clinic. A tragi-comic tale where the manipulative husband eventually gets his come-uppance.

These are my favourite two of the five fantastic stories in this collection. The stories sound barmy, and yes there is a heavy dose of the surreal, but Petrushevskaya’s tales at their heart are real human experiences of grief, love and loss. They are dark and melancholy stories but each has a resolution and tells of human resilience.

By telling each story as a fairy-tale Pertrushevskaya somehow amplifies the impact of each situation. Isn’t it true that sometimes the most difficult experiences in life feel quite surreal?

What stories have you read that surprised you lately?

20 responses to “Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskya

  1. Wow! I don’t even like short stories and you are making me want to read this! Full sized babies? Sounds tragic, but brilliant. Thanks for drawing it to my attention.

    • Hey Jackie! I thought they were pretty special stories, although maybe an acquired taste 🙂 The good thing is that they are actually short short stories, genuinely bite-size unlike other stories in compilations that I’ve read.

  2. Looks like you really enjoyed this book! I love short stories so I’ll have to go and check out this collection. I’ve been curious about Russian writing that’s not part of the classic canon (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nabokov etc) for a while now so it’s good to hear about other (new to me) authors.

    • New to me too! I can’t say I’m particularly widely read in Russian classics although I’m proud to have Anna K on my have-read list. I do have a bit of a fascination with Russian stories however as a result of a book of Russian fairytales I had as a child which were magical.

  3. I have There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby and I think that the short stories collected in the mini edition are from those nineteen (I’d have to look – will let you know). I picked it up after reading about it and coming to the conclusion that the volume sounded a little Carter-esque.

    I was surprised by short stories recently in a volume that I will be writing about during Persephone Reading Weekend next weekend…

  4. I am utterly blown by your reviews and there are only three words on my mind: Read Ludmilla Petrushevskya

    Bravo!!!

    • Vanessa, what an absolutely lovely thing to say!! Well if you do read her then I hope you love her writing as much as I did!

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  6. How spooky this is because we were talking about this on the phone and having just seen the link to the whole collection I was actually flicking through this in the wonderful Deansgate Waterstones only the other week and very, very nearly picked it up but it was an import and a fortune so I am going to ask for a copy for my birthday instead as it sounded like wonderfully dark adult fairy tales indeed!

    • I can’t wait to see you too oh long lost friend! I definitely think you would like these and now I want to read the Shirley Jackson tales that you reviewed too.

  7. Adam Freudenheim

    As the Publisher of Penguin Classics, I’m delighted at your enthusiasm for Petrushevskaya’s work. The Mini Modern Classics edition Through the Wall includes two stories which are not included in the larger volume Their Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby. If you liked these, I recommend the work of Shirley Jackson, also included in this series of Mini Moderns (The Tooth is the title) and also her great novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

    • Hello Adam, how brilliant that you have stopped by Novel Insights!

      Thank you for the recommendation – I’ve read lots of good things about Shirley Jackson and her stories do sound perfect for my reading taste.

      It was great to discover Petrushevsya through this lovely series – what a gem.

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