Snow in May captures in its title the exotic nature of this engaging short story collection by new writer Kseniya Melnik. Ms. Melnik, having lived some of her life in Alaska, and now residing in El Paso, sets her stories in her native Magadan, a Russian city on the Sea of Okhotsk, the section of the Pacific Ocean that borders northeastern Russia. Many of these stories have the flavor of memoir, since they give insight into the deep chasm between Russian folk culture and modern American interest in money, fads, and oneself.
As often happens with recent story collections, one can categorize them by subject matter. Many of the stories here deal with Soviet era economics and politics, with its long queues for everything from shows to fruit to bus rides, and the omnipresent secret police with its network of informants. Other stories deal very frankly with the baffling and intimidating encounters when leaving Russia’s far east for America. These stories give the reader new understanding of these transitions and new reminders of Russian character – in these functions, these tales excel.
The collection’s opening piece, Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas, a married Russian woman visiting Moscow on business must decide between a tempting proposition from a handsome Italian footballer and the rare opportunity get in line and buy bananas. This story is funny, endearing, balanced, and wise to the world. It’s set in 1975 which adds Soviet bloc weight to the bifurcating choice, but could really be set anywhere in any era. The gem of these stories is The Uncatchable Avengers, whose grade-school protagonist flubs several takes for TV, when trying to play a short Tchaikovsky piece for piano he knows well. He’s considered gifted, but can’t keep his focus, because he keeps thinking of the two-man gang he and his best friend had formed just the day before, the Uncatchable Avengers, based on a TV show. He dreams of finding clues to murders, and fighting gangs of thugs, and so he can’t play his simple piece. The drastic tactic his piano teacher finally employs to get him focusedleads to his flawless playing; a jubilant 9-year-old running outside afterward in the miraculous event of a May snowfall; and a highly gratified, smiling reader, smarting with the sweet sting delivered by effective, reverberant fiction.
Other stories record the divide between the East and West, between husband and wife, and between generations. Our author highlights characters faced with very human issues, and treats them with respect and compassion. This writer has gifts, and a unique background, and I anticipate liking whatever she produces in the future.