Continuing to Die: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

In the end, whether these are fairy tales or allegories is not worth debating: they evade classification in the same way they resist a final analysis. Perhaps it is safe to say that here is a writer who has carved out her own niche, but staying true to it can mean being circumscribed by it. It is hard to strike a perfect balance when spinning the adult fairy tale. Too many writers overcompensate with a surfeit of phantasmagoria, blinding instead of dazzling us. Petrushevskaya goes her own way, but the effect is writing that is articulate yet unarresting. Fairy tales need glut, not subtlety, and we read her and keep waiting for more. If only her “Orchards of Unusual Possibilities” could be possessed with the foreboding of Hansel and Gretel’s wood. Rudolf Ditzen took Hans Fallada as his nom de plume from “The Goose Girl,” a Grimm tale that is bulging with excess and we gorge ourselves on it. We also relish the cruelty, the wicked chambermaid who at the end “deserves nothing better… than to be stripped completely naked and put inside a barrel studded with sharp nails. Then two white horses should be harnessed to the barrel and made to drag her through the streets until she’s dead.” The talking horse (Falada) is decapitated by a knacker. In a more modern incarnation, though set in prelapsarian times, Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains begins with a ban: Marianne is not to leave her white tower that has survived “the blast” and venture beyond the outer wire fence. This has echoes of Petrushevskaya’s “Hygiene” — the incarceration, the hostility lurking outside, the fug of fall-out — but Carter is superior at threat, for Marianne’s nurse warns “If you are not a good little girl, the Barbarians will eat you… They wrap little girls in clay just like they do with hedgehogs, wrap them in clay, bake them in the fire and gobble them up with salt.” The threat in “Hygiene”? Go outside and you’ll die.

That other fairy-tale practitioner, Orwell, once wrote that “the best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews… to the few that seem to matter.” Petrushevskaya does matter and shouldn’t be ignored, and despite the unevenness of this collection, there is still much to admire. Her singular vision and unique voice are in evidence in all these tales — fashioning them and then embossing them. We should marvel at this writer’s inimitability, not to mention her perseverance, and laud her for steadfastly and stubbornly working against the grain,

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