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Snow in May, by Kseniya Melnik.

April 5, 2014

Snow in May, by Kseniya Melnik.  Henry Holt and Co. (2014) Hardcover, 288 pages.

An engaging collection of short stories set in frozen, far eastern Russia, where life and new growth is often thwarted by personal and political repression.

Kseniya Melnik was born in Magadan, the town in which her stories are located. Her stories are based on her memories of the place where she lived for 15 years and on the stories her parents told. The town is a port and, during Stalin’s rule, was the site of a major prison for those defined as political dissidents. After release from the prison, some of those prisoners were forced to remain in the town, where they created a vibrant musical and artistic culture, often evident in these stories.

Moving through Melnik’s stories are varied themes of desire and repression in widely varied forms. Desire can be as simple as the dream of a more expansive life and repression can come from parents and teachers or from an government intent on controlling its citizens and unable to provide for their material needs. While some of the stories, such as the boy performing at his piano recital, could take place anywhere, others offer seldom-told stories of life in an isolated Russian town.

All the stories in the collection are well-written and suggest a promising future for this perceptive young writer. As usual with collections, I found myself caught up in some of the stories more than others. One of my favorites was about a woman who directed the local museum in Magadan. She went to a required training session in St. Petersburg and stopped off in Moscow to shop for items not available at home. Surprised when an Italian soccer player makes an advance, she delays meeting him to buy rare bananas for her family. But after the bananas are stolen, she returns home. She can only wear her attractive new dress for her lethargic husband. Her dreams are not repressed or destroyed, but forced into a smaller space by the circumstances of her life.

Some of the stories deal with children who are forced to accept realities. Most are set in post-Stalin years when scarcity is as much of a burden as the government itself. Only one story deals with the years when the prison was being run. Here a grandfather tells an adolescent girl the story of a fine musician arrested (not once but twice), both the government and the grandfather veiwing his sexuality as subversive.

I highly recommend Snow in May because the stories are simply excellent, and they tell of lives many of us have never known firsthand.

Thanks to Henry Holt and Library Thing for sending me a review copy of this book.

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