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Book Review: Panic in a Suitcase

Panic in a Suitcase

by Yelena Akhtiorskaya

Riverhead Books, 2014

A Heap, Rubble, Cats

I have this totally indefensible, embarrassing thing about foreign-sounding proper nouns. I probably should not admit this now, here, but a discussion of this arbitrary disinclination I have will prove germane to the subject of this review, Yelena Akhtiorksaya’s debut novel Panic in a Suitcase (which I’ll say now, just to show my cards, is a masterful work of art). Whenever I see a lot of italicized non-English words that seem unnecessary (e.g. “She said thanks a Dios”) or place names that could have been written in English but weren’t (e.g. “We took a left at the Tour Eiffel”), my eyes glaze over. Something about italicizing text makes it sound different in the reader’s mind. Or maybe I’m just an uncultured jerk. I am not proud of this and my Cuban grandmother wouldn’t be either if she knew about my close-minded weakness. But I’d hazard a guess that a lot of English readers have experienced something like this foreignness-fatigue. The issue is not that the places and names are not in English, but rather that writing them in a different language seems designed to underline the fact of their foreignness. The italics work like a neon sign indicating that here we’ve got something new, something different and exciting. It feels a bit like putting a goatee on Mr. Spock to show that he is evil instead of making him prove it.

Akhtiorskaya manages to avoid this ham-fisted gesture. In fact, if I were to list every potential pitfall she avoids deftly and confidently, this review would be several thousand words long. I am hard-pressed to find something about Panic in a Suitcase that is not successful.

The novel follows the moving, hilarious life of the Nasmertov family, all but one of the members of which emigrated from Odessa to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn in the early ‘90s. The reader feels that each of these completely original creations is someone he once knew but forgot long ago, like the hulking, gesticulating figures that visit us in dreams. Pasha, the son, is a poet, “the biological antithesis to the concept of multitasking,” with all of the unhygienic idiosyncrasies and ailments that might dominate a poet’s existence. The novel is concerned in large part with how his family recognizes him and how he lives his life in relation to their insistent reinforcement of the domestic structure. The sheer proliferation of flaws in each of his relatives—from Esther, the coldly loving mother, to Robert, an earnest, ineffectual patriarch, to Marina, the sympathetic, strong-willed, heartbreaking sister, to Frida, Marina’s chubby, frank daughter—serves to adorn the painting of their lives with countless believable, compelling details.

The word that comes to mind is “honest.” Nothing about Panic in a Suitcase feels put on or disingenuous. That is because Akhtiorskaya’s sole intent in this novel seems to be to tell the stories of her characters, stories that are sometimes so funny in such a dark way that I found myself amazed at how many times the book made me laugh without smiling. The author sees in Brighton Beach, an enclave of mostly Russian immigrants, an archetype for the humor and pathos that characterizes the lives of the Nasmertovs.

“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, forgetting that the original had come about organically and proceeded to evolve, already markedly different from their poor-quality photocopy.”

That could sound sad and pathetic, and it may seem so when it is presented apart from the marvelous context in which it originally appears, but it ends up sounding like a joke. And it is, in a way. Depending on your mood, watching someone run from someplace only to build a replica of that same place the minute they’re free is either tragic or profoundly, unutterably funny.

The real star of Panic in a Suitcase is Akhtiorskaya’s prose. I have never read anything like this. This is the 29-year-old author’s first novel and it is written with such skill that even the most accomplished writer will feel at least a tinge of jealousy while reading it. Her voice is utterly original and unique, but also confident enough that the reader happily follows her wherever her kaleidoscopic vocabulary and unpredictable turns of phrase may lead. Lines that demand to be copied into notebooks abound. “The bags applied a pleasant pressure to his feet, the way a securely potted plant must feel,” she writes, and the reader can experience that long-forgotten feeling, the feeling of riding on a school bus with a backpack on one’s feet, anew. Later, “His father belonged to the businessman species, one of those hastily assembled men with an electric stride, a plethora of tics, and an inability to sit at dinner tables.” Immediately we are familiar with the character in question because the author chose just the right details, like the three stars in Orion’s belt, that, when connected, make this man.

There is not a lazy sentence in the entire novel. It is one of the most successful, entertaining, uniquely-written pieces of fiction I have ever read. Near its end, Frida, now in her twenties, returns to Odessa and visits the dacha that had been her family’s proudest possession. “Frida turned to take in the dacha one last time, but the scene was already jumbling, blurring, rearranging. Her mental photo would end up atrociously underexposed, a photo foremost of darkness, of a gritty, inexact darkness that could roll over vivid three-dimensional worlds and crush them.” This is how it feels to review this book. Panic in a Suitcase is so innovative, so new, and yet so comforting and frank and sweet and filled with so much truth that writing about it feels like an unnecessary, necessarily ineffectual waste of time. Like everyone else who rightly decides to pick up this book, I will await Akhtiorskaya’s next novel with rabid anticipation.

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