The emotional landscape of childhood, with its naïveté and surprise, is so difficult to reclaim that its greatest chroniclers – Lewis Carroll in ”Alice in Wonderland,” Boris Pasternak in ”Liuvers’s Childhood” — have often resorted to fantasy or abstraction. In her first collection, ”There Are Jews in My House,” where all but one of the six stories are written from the perspective of a child from the former Soviet Union, Lara Vapnyar instead chooses a devout hyperrealism. In chaste, almost artless prose, she conjures up the inchoate lives of children grappling to make sense of the adults all around them.
In ”Ovrashki’s Trains,” a 5-year-old whose family has rented a dacha next to a train station searches in vain for her long-absent father – she’s been told he’s ”abroad on a business trip” – amid the disembarking passengers. In ”Lydia’s Grove,” 8-year-old Lara witnesses her mother’s falling out with a colleague. And in ”Mistress,” 9-year-old Misha helplessly watches as his family unravels, undone by the quiet discontent of immigration.
Invariably, the fathers in these stories are dead or living elsewhere, and their children are forced to confront the mysterious world of adults with a baffled guilelessness. ”What if . . . there wasn’t anything bad or special about being Jewish?” little Katya wonders in ”A Question for Vera” after a classmate unceremoniously informs her that she is ”a Jewess.” ”There was nobody to answer that question. Nobody at all.”
In ”Lydia’s Grove,” Lara records her mother’s flustered reaction after a secluded moment with a female friend, but the girl never understands its implications, never realizes what it suggests about the other woman’s sexuality. In ”Ovrashki’s Trains,” the young narrator recalls: ”Several long months passed before I turned 6, old enough to learn that my father had died four years earlier from a heart attack. My mother couldn’t bear to tell me. She asked her brother to come visit and talk to me. . . . I was staring at his shiny forehead, large round nose and bushy brows. Then he told me something. I didn’t understand what he said, because I was thinking of plucking a hair out of his brow.”
The poise and restraint of Vapnyar’s meticulously punctuated prose makes an odd conveyance for the tempestuous un-self-consciousness – and unconsciousness – of these young lives. And it can also turn what could have been charming oblivion into grating preciousness. Having pressed two seashells to her ears, the young heroine of ”Ovrashki’s Trains” ”didn’t hear a thing. I thought maybe the sea had been in there before but then had seeped out.”
The adult world’s method may be half seen, and its facts half understood by Vapnyar’s children, but they nonetheless live vibrant lives saturated with desire. In experiencing life primarily as a collection of sensations – carrot tops grazing a ticklish nose; wet leaves brushing past bare calves – they acquire a visceral sense of the world around them that is at once a prologue to intellectual awareness and a rejection of its compromises. Oddly, Vapnyar depicts this almost lurid exultation with a decorousness that seems as withdrawn and reluctant as her characters are engaged and inquiring.
The language of recoil works better when Vapnyar is summoning the perplexing, if not terrifying, Soviet universe in which these children grow up – a place where matrons boast breasts of improbable colors and dimensions, and teachers forbid you to go out for recess until you have forced down the last crumbs of your inedible roll.
Vapnyar, who was born in 1971 and emigrated to the United States in 1994, draws an indelible portrait of the land she left behind. From the instant coffee (”a sweet, grayish liquid lacking both coffee flavor and aroma”) to the Vaselined cheeks that ward off December frost to the ”stout, red-faced” woman hawking rotten potatoes and onions outside an abandoned church to the sentries of good sense who enforce social conformity in every workplace, shop and home, Vapnyar conjures a country that is both alluring and oppressive and induces longing and dismay in equal parts. Here is the Soviet Union as only its citizens knew it – a junkyard of truncated aspirations, moral degradation, despair and inexplicable resilience, a place at once labyrinthine and explicit, dysfunctional and yet determined to survive.
But in the end, Vapnyar’s resentments overwhelm her sympathies. Her Soviet Union is stifling and monochromatic: ”the familiar gray road surrounded by wilted trees, grayish-white school buildings, identical supermarkets with dirty windows, party slogans written in dirty white letters on faded red boards and nine-story gray apartment buildings.” Her young characters pry private spaces of sincerity from this standardized universe before eventually succumbing and becoming its enforcers.
In ”Love Lessons – Mondays, 9 A.M.,” a young schoolteacher from a small town who is patronized by her colleagues as a greenhorn (and by the capital’s women as a bumpkin) teaches sex education the way one might teach auto mechanics, hounded as she is by notions of propriety and accountability imposed by every woman she meets, from her mother to the principal of her school. When she lets down her guard with a man – and a local Casanova at that – the transgression enables her to undergo an epic liberation. The morning after, she laughs uncontrollably, then works up the courage to reveal to her students that she doesn’t know the answers to their questions. The furious joy of her new freedom comes off the page like fireworks.
As Vapnyar’s children begin to uncover the motivations of the world beyond them, they also long to inhabit a reality that conforms to their inner world of exploration and wonder. In ”Mistress,” Misha, who has been harassed into a silent introversion by his father’s abandonment, goes with his grandfather to visit one of the old man’s friends, a woman who smiles frequently and confesses to being ”a very bad cook.” She asks Misha, who is a natural-history buff, to explain how a fly becomes stranded in amber. After Misha and his grandfather leave, the boy spends the walk home ”talking about the formation of amber, about volcanoes, about chameleons . . . nonstop, breathlessly, sputtering, chuckling in excitement, interrupting one story to tell the next.”
For the exile, the homeland is like the fly in Misha’s amber, petrified into a fantasy of permanence. But the place that made us continues to remake itself after we leave, and there is no better example of this than post-Soviet Russia. In the last few years native Russians, transplants and foreigners have all written novels and short stories about their confrontation with that new reality in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Instead, Vapnyar has, for the most part, chosen to write about a world that used to be. Now that she’s an American and an adult, she knows how rapidly it fades from view.