ONE MORE YEAR
By Sana Krasikov
Portobello Books, June 2009, £10.99
Anyone who expects a short story to be an impressionistic wash, a glimpsed moment that requires less than full concentration, should know that the eight stories in Sana Krasikov’s debut collection permit the reader no such idleness. On the contrary, One More Year demands commitment. Its narratives are intricately woven, populated by idiosyncratic characters, of whom many — the boyfriend’s mother, for instance, who lectures on the psychology of endurance after surviving a plane crash — are merely mentioned in passing. Each tale is alive with the minutiae of a fully-realised world and in each the author has amassed enough material to create at least one novel.
Like most of her characters, Krasikov is an émigré from Eastern Europe. Born in the Ukraine, she grew up in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and moved to the United States when she was eight years old. In this acclaimed collection, for which she was awarded the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, she describes the immigrant experience from eight different angles, in unsentimental prose laced with bruised compassion. Her characters, whether striving to assimilate in the States or reacclimatise themselves to Russia, are adrift in equally inhospitable lands: ‘an entire world transposed, like an ink blot on a folded map, from one continent to another.’
Many of Krasikov’s protaganists are lone women, forced to sacrifice the possibility of love for the pursuit of security. Ilona in ‘The Companion’ allows an elderly man to nurse fantasies about their relationship as long as he provides her with accommodation, while in ‘Better Half’, waitress Anya weds the laddish Ryan in the hope of acquiring a green card. When Ryan becomes violent she takes out a restraining order against him, but loneliness reunites them and they begin an affair which threatens her new visa application. Despite her pragmatism and his immaturity, Anya knows that if she is to leave him for good, ‘she’d have to overcome the urge to look for him…like some gaunt animal migrating uphill before a flash flood without quite knowing why’.
It is not only romantic love that requires sacrifice. In ‘Maia in Yonkers’, the story from which the book draws its title, Maia cares for an elderly lady in New York in order to support her teenage son back in Georgia. When he visits, her son is both consumed by greed and incensed by America’s conspicuous wealth. ‘Why are you showing me all of this? I can’t stay here anyway!’ Gogi protests, accusing her: ‘Every year you say its one more year….!’ Meanwhile Mrs Trapolli, the old lady for whom Maia works, over tips cabbies and waiters so that her aquisitive daughter has nothing to inherit. When Mrs Trapolli’s generosity collides with Gogi’s avarice, she only adds to the layers of resentment, gratitude and guilt between mother and son.
Although the stories share a pervasive bleakness, Krasikov’s understated humour runs throughout the book. In ‘The Alternate’, middle-aged Victor invites the daughter of his long-dead lover to dinner, hoping to seduce her but ultimately finding that ‘what he wanted now, most of all, was for her to like him’.When they speak on the phone he worries that his echoing of her Americanised ‘Terrific’ sounds like an over-eager ‘Chrifeeg!’ Over dinner, Alina confides that she argued with her boyfriend because he asked her to hide his laptop before leaving his flat unlocked. ‘So I put it in the oven,’ she explains, ‘And then I left. When he got home he set the oven on preheat because, who knows, he wanted to bake himself a potato.’ These stories might be short on hope but they are constantly uplifted by moments of wry humanity.
Only in Asal, the tale of Gulia, whose husband Rashid divides his time between her and his other, Islamic wife, does Krasikov’s writing seem overwrought. Here, the characters’ elaborate histories come at the expense of clarity. Gulia herself has been previously married and, in the course of the story, leaves Rashid, finds work as a childminder in New York, marries a third man in order to stay there and toys with a relationship with a fourth, still trying to quash her enduring love for her husband. Asal is unpredictable, intriuging and finally shockingly sad. But it took, for this reader certainly, more than one reading to untangle the plot.
That apart, One More Year is an accomplished collection from an original new voice; subtle, uncompromising and wise. Having enjoyed Krasikov’s densely packed stories, I look forward to her forthcoming first novel. Freed from the confines of the shortened form to develop the cast of fascinating characters at her disposal, I have no doubt that she will find a rich seam of inspiration and relish the extra pages in which to share it.