It’s a little black-hearted, but I suspect that we read stories about hard luck and bad decisions because they remind us that at least things are as bad as they are for the people in them. I thought about this a lot as I read the stories in Kseniya Melnik’s collection, Snow in May. I didn’t set out to read hard luck stories when I picked it up; I just grabbed it off the shelf at my library because I liked the cover. But then, I should have known that I’d get a stiff dose of hardship from any piece of fiction set in the Soviet Union or Russia.
Some of the stand outs from this collection include:
“Love, Italian Style, or, In Line for Bananas.” This story features a hard choice. On the one hand, the protagonist can choose a night of passion with a visiting Italian athlete (and face the inevitable consequences of consorting with capitalists). On the other, she can do her duty to her family in Magadan and stand in nearly endless queues to secure foods and goods that she can only buy in Moscow. Unfortunately, it appears that Fate is making things even more difficult for our protagonist: she has the worst streak of luck in her entire life.
“Closed Fracture.” In this story, a Russian immigrant to the United States receives a phone call from his best friend from childhood. The call functions like Proust’s madeleine and sends the immigrant on a long journey back through his memories to the winter he broke his leg and his life diverged from his unlucky friend’s.
“Our Upstairs Neighbor.” In this story, a young woman attends a somewhat ludicrous concert in honor of one of the Soviet Union’s greatest singers. The singer never shows. When the young woman asks about him, she learns that her grandfather knew him. Her question to her grandfather about why the singer didn’t show elicits a long, meandering story about the singer via her grandfather’s life. He argues that, to understand the now, we have to know everything that came before.
While the stories in Snow in May didn’t knock my socks off, I enjoyed how many of them linked together to share a multi-generational family story of surviving under the last decades of the Soviet Regime and the first decade of the Russian Federation. Everyone hustles to get a better life for themselves and their relatives, only to stumble or rise when Fate or Luck intervenes.