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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya

This is the dark comedy of immigrant stories.  The Nasmertovs, the family at the center of the book, have been in Brooklyn for 715 days--they were still counting the days, literally, as the novel opens.  When the parents, Esther and Robert, immigrate in 1991 with their grown daughter Marina, her husband Levik, and their 7-year-old granddaughter Frida, they leave behind their son Pasha, a socially phobic,up-and-coming poet who avoids all discussions of what he will do with his life and who is part black sheep, part source of irritation and fascination.  He takes to his bed often, and is the kind of guy who can suck the life out of a room.

This is a book you read for its vivid characters and language more than plot. Panic abounds in biting cultural and visual observations, as when Pasha, debating whether to cede to his family's pressures to relocate to Brooklyn, reflects, "His fellow countrymen hadn't ventured bravely into a new land, they'd borrowed a tiny nook at the very rear of someone else's crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they'd gone through so many hurdles to escape, imprisoning themselves in their own lack of imagination." He notes that even the food is uncannily similar, "the only divergence being in abundance." It is both wonderful and manageable.  Not too Slavic in it's length but just as sharp in it's wit.

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