Book review

'Panic in a Suitcase': Yelena Akhtiorskaya pens a funny tale of Russian emigres

Like some traditional Russian meals, this debut novel is a matter of many courses

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Like some traditional Russian meals, Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s debut novel “Panic in a Suitcase” is a matter of many courses. And like those feasts, it’s worth slogging through (the caviar and vodka are great in that country, but the main dishes can be overcooked) for dessert. Reaching the end is worth the journey, though the trip can be taxing.

By Yelena Akhtiorskaya
Riverhead Books ($27.95).

“Panic in a Suitcase” is a dense, baroque fiction about the Nasmertov family in its native Odessa and in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, its more challenging, if more promising, new home. It’s a lyrical, funny and scattered novel.

The Nasmertov around whom “Panic” revolves is Pavel Robertovich, or Pasha, a neurasthenic poet of girth, hypochondria and appetite. Pasha’s sister, the thrifty Marina, deplores his lack of ambition; Frida, Marina’s restless daughter (and likely an autobiographical ringer for the author herself), admires her uncle. The relationship between Frida and Pasha is among the more deftly crafted plot lines in this complicated, occasionally vexing book.

“Panic” spans 20 years in exploring cities with much in common: a seaside locale, retail as Russian in Brooklyn as in Ukraine, close-knit, cramped Jewish families, a fatalistic but nourishing sense of humor.

While there is much to admire, particularly the language, Ms. Akhtiorskaya overstuffs her book, tracking one person, then another, then a third. The characters are well developed, but the frequent shifts in focus and viewpoint hobble the book’s drive.

I read this with interest and admiration — Ms. Akhtiorskaya, who is under 30, writes like an old soul, making “Panic” a weird contemporary take on the classic Russian novel — but felt a bit lost if I put it down for a few days. Still, it always drew me back in.

Launched with Pasha’s first visit to the United States, capped by the imminent Odessa wedding of Pasha’s son Sanya (whom we never get to know), “Panic” attempts to bridge the gap between the old (Odessa) and the new (Brighton Beach). Ms. Akhtiorskaya clearly feels at home in both.

Frida, too, feels at home, as in a gathering in Brighton Beach, where Frida meets a friend and unwinds, plopping herself into a beanbag chair:

“The other beanbag chairs were occupied by youngish intellectual types who exhibited in equal measure Odessa humor, Petersburg interests (sans pretensions), Moscow cosmopolitanism (without the coarseness of hard consonants), and New York transit proficiency; who watched Tarnovsky films and played chess (and would finally succeed in teaching her how); who listened to Pink Floyd and Vysotsky and could recite whole stanzas of Eugene Onegin but never went on too long doing so, choosing instead to dance a little, European style, inside the beanbag fortress; who had jobs in the sciences but whose passions lay in art and literature; who got together every weekend in a casual but never obligatory manner and considered this gang, this kompaniya of theirs, a second family, sort of the way her parents considered their kompaniya.”

There’s a whole social milieu here. There’s also a very long sentence. The two speak to Ms. Akhtiorskaya’s gift — and to what complicates the book.

Ms. Akhtiorskaya can be funny, too, which helps. When Frida arrives in Odessa for Sanya’s wedding, her half-brother Volk meets her at the airport. The airport is challenging:

“Her heart intensified its drum as she charged at the automatic doors separating her from Odessa air, like Moses marching at a sea that didn’t split. Momentum brought her cheek up against the glass. Peeling herself off, she stepped back, dumbstruck. Volk whipped out a pocketknife. He inserted the blade into a crack between doors and flipped his wrist, creating a space that his fingers could squeeze through, and proceeded to very unautomatically pry apart the doors.”

“Panic in a Suitcase” effectively paints the picture of family that is anything but smooth, and for the most part, Ms. Akhtiorskaya’s unique linguistic gifts reflect and even illuminate her rough-textured worlds.

Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.

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