Elizabeth Dalton Recommends “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales”

This year we introduced “Recommended Reads,” a new segment in which Ball State students and faculty contribute a short review of recommended piece of literature. Continue below to read our newest installment in the series, which features Elizabeth Dalton’s review of There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

There is nothing better than a good creep-out on a dark, snowy evening. This collection of tales, written by a famous–and somewhat notorious–Russian writer, offers a haunting selection of oddities: a father who revives his dead daughter through a terrifying dream; a jealous woman who thinks she’s killed her neighbor’s baby; and a dead monk who cures the lame. Divided into four sections—“Songs of the Eastern Slavs,” “Allegories,” “Requiems,” and “Fairy Tales”—this collection bears witness to the privation and oppression of 20th Century Russia from the street level. Particularly compelling is the allegory, “The New Robinson Crusoes: A Chronicle of the End of the Twentieth Century,” a tale about a family of refugees who move further and further into the wilderness to escape the repercussions of a collapsing society.

Subtle and disturbing rather than scary, Petrushevskaya gives the reader a world with few certainties. Many of the characters find themselves journeying through uncanny landscapes in an effort to arrive at an understanding, to get home, or to flee home. They are often unsure how they landed in these places, and when they reach their destinations, they are not always as comforted as they hoped.  For example, in the requiem “Two Kingdoms,” a gravely ill bride finds herself traveling far from home with her somewhat distant but kind husband who has promised to cure her. She doesn’t remember much of the wedding itself, which is nothing more than a confused blur of white lace and the scent of flowers. After a long flight, she arrives at her new home, where she begins to recover.  But things are not quite right. There is no paper for letter writing, and she is prevented from making contact with anyone besides her husband. There is, as she notes, “no connection” with others. So it is with resignation that she reconciles herself to her pain-free but disconnected life beyond the reach of her family and friends.

The ambiguous nature of these stories is unsettling and refreshing to readers like me who are used to fiction that comes thoughtfully bundled with ready-made reasons for and solutions to the problems many contemporary protagonists face.  While Petrushevskaya’s characters are not always kind or particularly sane, nearly all, as the collection’s editors state in the introduction, are touched by desperation. These very human failings add another layer of texture to these rich, eerie stories, in which hapless but resourceful characters elicit the reader’s sympathy and, sometimes, admiration.

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. Penguin Books, 2009.

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