A debut work in the form of a collection of short stories is still a rarity; it would normally only be published well into a writer’s career, possibly after a number of novels. Of course the quality of the writing and the depth of talent of the writer can create an exception, and in Kseniya Melnik’s case, this is evidently what has happened.
Snow in May is a collection of nine short stories, all set at least partially in the town of Magadan in the far east of Russia. The author was born and lived there until the age of 15 and ripples of the autobiographical run through the collection. Magadan is as much a character as any other in these pieces, as well as being one of the links in the chain which hold these stories and lives together. The culture and the history of this part of Russia may be unfamiliar to us, but by the end of the book we feel we know a little more, having absorbed these haunting tales of hope and hopelessness.
Reading each story as a single entity was wholly satisfying in itself. Yet I gradually realised that, with one exception (the first story), some of the human characters from This means that reading the stories in chronological order imparts a better feel of the historical flow.
In “Rumba”, set in 1996, a jaded and aged dance teacher becomes reinvigorated by the arrival of Asik, a 12-year-old pupil with talent and potential he has only dreamed of. Melnik builds the tension through the pages masterfully; the reader is constantly on edge – from the first moment the teacher lays eyes on Asik: “She was mostly leg. Her thighs were as slender as her calves, shades darker then he’d ever seen in still-wintry Magadan May.” Is this simply a technical appraisal, or is there something darker behind his thoughts? Despite what we are beginning to suspect, the ending is not only inevitable but shocking in its impact.
The first piece, “Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas” is ostensibly about a woman’s rare shopping trip to Moscow in 1975, where everything one desires might be acquired if one waits for long enough in the right line. It has convincing comedic interludes; here during a conversation about sex gurus: “An orgasm for an hour? That would finish Comrade Brezhnev right off”. This story is a finely-balanced piece of writing, with so much vivid content crammed into less than 30 pages, that we feel that we are accompanying Tanya on her trip;
Tanya secured a lacy East German bra, which was so much more delicate than the gray, industrial Soviet make…a box of Polish toothpaste and lotion, stockings and three Czechoslovakian shirts…A tube of French lipstick was passed to her over the heads of others in exchange for money. Its colour was a mystery.
Throughout the story and with Melnik’s deftness, a beautiful silk dress becomes a leitmotif for a choice Tanya makes between the basic needs of her family and her own romantic ambitions. The ending is a lesson in the power of finishing at exactly the right moment.
Magadan not only unites the stories geographically, it also unites its characters in their collective desire to shield their origins from the rest of Russia:
Magadan was famous for having been the entry point to the cruellest of Stalin’s network of camps. People might think her parents had sat there; and if they were arrested, then there must have been a reason. Now people were paid good money to live in the northeast. It wasn’t a good idea to advertise either.
So Magadan as a character is one with a shameful past, yet also one which holds the hands of all the other characters, uniting them in their common origins
Magadan is as filled with secrets, duplicity and pride as the remarkable characters who fill the pages of this assured and beautifully constructed collection. We feel their pain and their tiny triumphs – the shared humanity which Melnik is so skilled at representing in their inner monologues and dilemmas crosses borders and continents, and we feel at home in a hitherto unfamiliar world.