Anya Ulinich’s debut novel, Petropolis (Viking, $24.95) takes its title from an Osip Mandelstam poem mourning the fall of Petrograd: “O, if you are a star, Petropolis, your city… is dying.” Sasha Goldberg, an awkward teenager with two major strikes against her in pre- Perestroika Russian society — she is both black and Jewish — struggles to survive her own dying city. Raised in Asbestos 2, a bleak Siberian mining town, Goldberg spends her childhood under the disappointed gaze of her mother, Lubov, a striking and intelligent woman with no outlet for her ambition. Ulinich’s descriptions of Asbestos 2 are tragically beautiful: “On clear nights,” she writes, describing the network of footprints that freeze over each evening, “silver threads connected the school to the liquor store, the liquor store to the asbestos pit, the pit to the morgue, and the morgue to the Conversation Point [a long-distance calling station], drawing a predictable diagram of daily life in a place unsuitable for living.”
Lubov’s attempts at culture land Sasha in an after-school art program. Though classes are held in the half-submerged basement of an abandoned building, to Sasha they represent paradise. For the first time, she is accepted by her peers. Quickly, however, that acceptance leads to her first love affair, and a pregnancy. The complications that follow force Sasha to flee, moving from one identity to another: a 16 year-old mail-order bride in Arizona; an unpaid domestic and yeshiva protégé to wealthy Jewish Suburban Chicagoans; and finally a self-sufficient New Yorker, savvy enough to charge $25 an hour for Feng-shui cleaning.
But Petropolis is not your typical immigrant- makes-good tale. Sasha is haunted by what she has abandoned in Asbestos 2 — a disappointed mother, an unknown daughter, and a forgotten city that threatens to bury them both. Even as she matures, no longer a frizzy and awkward girl but instead a strong woman confident enough to hunt down her errant father in Brooklyn, where he’d defected to when she was a child — and then to ignore him in favor of his young and vibrant wife — Sasha affects a “mental twilight” which allows her to function without constantly aching.
Jake Tarakan, the physically-disabled son of Sasha’s Chicago would-be benefactors, is the only American to whom Sasha fully relates. One of the few wheelchairbound characters in American fiction, Jake is intelligent and attuned to Sasha’s plight, but both he and Sasha, scarred from years of playing the misfit, are initially unable to trust one another. (“Meet me,” Sasha quips at one point, invoking the Russian term for a black woman: “Sasha Goldberg, a real-life Russian negritianka.”)
In Sasha and Jake, Ulinich, who immigrated to the US from Moscow at the age of 17, has written a believable and beautiful relationship. The same might be said for the far less beautiful, but sadly as believable, marriage of Sasha’s mother and father. Other characters feel less true, and at times the writing feels heavy-handed; some leaps of faith are required as Sasha moves across Russia and then America. Nonetheless, Petropolis is an impressive debut, a pageturner capable of describing not just the dark loneliness of a remote Siberian city but also of its struggling women.
Ilana Stanger-Ross is a student-midwife in Victoria, BC. Her first novel, Sima’s Undergarments for Women, is forth-coming from Overlook Press.