A review of There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Reviewed by Charlene Diane Jones

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In
by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Penguin
ISBN-13: 978-0143121664, Paperback: 208 pages, October 28, 2014

What can be said of a writer who is being compared to Dostoyevksy, Gogol and Babel, except “Is it true?” If it is true, by what qualities may we compare Petrushevskaya with the greats of that huge, barren land mass, that home of over one hundred completely distinct languages, that safe hold of more precious stones and natural resources than any other place in the world buried under forty feet of permafrost, that sprawl of over eleven time zones, that place formerly known as Russia?

We might compare by virtue of command, how the author’s language compels us in the way we are compelled, beyond our choice, to follow for instance Raskolnikov as he winds his way upstairs, coldly contemplating what morality attends to the horror he is about to commit in the staggering work Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. Does Petrushevskaya write with that level of authority?

The answer is yes. Her subject matter resides within the ordinary lives of ordinary people in the semi-impoverished and fear drenched city of Moscow. The first story, The Time is Night, quite aside from its accumulation of tension and ambivalent ending (is Anna alive?) reveals the fractured mind sets of people left too long cold, too long on the edge of starvation, too long going without.

Anna’s interior monologue insists upon herself as the victim, the martyr mother, the loving, kind, warm essence of human devotion who has only and always the best interests of her daughter, her son, and especially her grandson at heart.

As the skillfully written dialogue reveals, her judgments of others and carping criticism create chasms between herself and her daughter, and her excessive idealization of her son prevents her from seeing his selfishness.

Stephen King sagely suggested if a mediocre writer dedicated herself completely, eventually she would become a good writer. But the level of greatness, of having the ear for dialogue whether external or internal, is a gift akin to perfect pitch for musicians. Petrushevskaya has it.

To write from the first person with such clever and subtle deception demands a technique and talent far above that of average writing. To accomplish first person for over one hundred pages, without a stray word demonstrates a level of genius.

Petrushevskaya takes on the central core of civilization in her story “Among Friends” again using the first person perspective to reveal more about the narrator than those around her. After spilling her judgments and barely covered nastiness in all directions, the protagonist completes a horrible action, an unthinkable action, and by doing so allows her heart of a mother to come through on behalf of her child.

If you have any familiarity with Russian culture, Russian people, or if you step back just for a moment from some of the intensity of the exchanges between the characters that people her stories, you sense a thread of humour, of warmth, of great compassion about the passing nonsense we call life. In true Russian fashion, Anna and her daughter exchange visceral barbs and while still bleeding, ask each other, “You want to eat?” Then they sit and eat without it seems a backward notion.

Get the book, read it, enjoy it and relish being in the care of a great, living author, one of the former Russia’s true treasures.

About the reviewer: Charlene Diane Jones entered her sixth decade (in this lifetime) with the enthusiasm and optimism of a child. Her faith in reincarnation, karma that comes to us as circumstance, and ongoing healing feeds her sense of hope. Her latest book The Stain reveals more about repeating cycles, and how three women’s lives remained tangled. Does one free them all? Find out more at: http://www.soulsciences.net

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