- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 2003


By Lara Vapnyar

Pantheon Books, $19.95, 160 pages


This book will surprise you. “There Are Jews in My House” is a collection of short stories by a Russian-born woman who learned English after coming to America ten years ago, but it hardly reads like the work of a beginner. Written in an extraordinarily pure and correct prose style, and depicting ordinary life with strict truthfulness, it is a work that makes a clean break with the game-playing and convention-overturning of postmodern fiction.

Lara Vapnyar’s strong suit, her special gift, is to show how children learn about the world of adults. Four of the six stories are in fact written from a child’s point of view, and these four are the strongest of the book.

One, “A Question for Vera,” is set in a Moscow preschool and centers on a well-behaved girl named Katya. Alone without her friend and playmate Aziza (who is out sick), Katya is cornered by one of the bigger girls in the class, Ira Baranova, a “recognized authority on life.” Next, as the author writes: “They walked into the bathroom and faced the row of ceramic sinks and the row of white kid-sized toilets in dark-blue stalls without doors … Ira Baranova whispered, ‘I know something about you.’ She was the tallest kid in their class, with a round face, rosy cheeks, and strict gray eyes … ‘You are a Jewess,’ Ira said. ‘I know. I can tell.’”

The rest of the story follows Katya’s confused, frightened thoughts, for she does not know if she is Jewish, or even what it means to be Jewish. It is a brief, intense, terrifying piece, almost the equal of Salinger’s “Down at the Dinghy” and Kipling’s “Baa, Baa Black Sheep” for its depiction of a child excluded from her peers.

Also wonderful is “Ovrashki’s Trains,” told through the eyes of a girl whose family is spending the summer in a house next to a train station in the Russian countryside. It is a powerful tale of broken expectations. The main character, a girl of six, believes that her father will be stepping off one of the trains that pass by each day to pay a visit to her.

At summer’s end, after having waited for her father in vain, she at last learns from her uncle that her father died years earlier of a heart attack. The narrator’s afterthought is an example of perfect prose:

“My father died in a little town on the Black Sea, where the sky and sea were of the same cobalt-blue color and the ships that came into the harbor looked startlingly white in a blinding southern sun. The coffin with my father’s body traveled to Moscow on a freight train, in a dark car made of thick red boards knocked together, along with some factory equipment in plywood boxes. When the train moved, the car tilted, and the boxes slid down to the side, knocking against the coffin’s edge with a hollow sound muffled by the rumble of the train.”

“Lydia’s Grove” and “Mistress,” both first-rate, also take up a child’s perspective, but add sexuality to the bargain. “Lydia’s Grove” is so subtle that any kind of summary will destroy it.

“Mistress,” first published in Open City magazine, is the only story in the collection set in America (in Brooklyn). Narrated by an 8-year-old boy named Misha, it describes how both Misha and his grandfather are kept under the thumb of the newly liberated, Americanized women in their family — until, that is, Misha’s grandfather begins an affair with a woman in their neighborhood. It is an astute boy’s story, and all the more remarkable for having been written by a woman.

The weakest stories in this collection are “Love Lessons—Monday, 9 A.M.” and the title story, “There Are Jews in My House,” both of which deal with adult life. “Love Lessons” could have been very good, but it ends on a clever note that is more cheap than amusing. It rings hollow.

“There Are Jews in My House” is the longest story in the book, and perhaps the most forceful; but it is fatally truncated, ending before the reader learns the fate of Raya and Leeza, two Jews being sheltered by a Christian woman in Russia during World War II. Still, it offers acute insight into the psychology of anti-Semitism.

The only criticism to make of this collection as a whole is that its stories are independent, whereas in a great volume of short fiction like James Joyce’s “Dubliners,” everything contributes to an overarching design. But Miss Vapnyar has produced a book of superbly written tales that continue the tradition of Russian realism perfected by Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, who — judging by scattered references — would seem to be her masters.

That she could continue this tradition in English, which is not her native language, is the achievement of a prodigy. This very original writer will no doubt produce more excellent work. Even after reading her first book, one feels that a season is changing and the future has arrived.

Stephen Barbara is a writer in Hoboken. He has written for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

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