FICTION: A masterful, funny debut novel about a Russian immigrant family living in Brooklyn and the life they left behind in Odessa.
Looking at the title of Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s debut novel and learning that the book is about the checkered fortunes of a family from Odessa, we could be forgiven for thinking that the author has utilized the ongoing drama in her native Ukraine as a backdrop. In fact, the panic in “Panic in a Suitcase” refers not to the current political crisis but to the perennial trials of the immigrant experience. Akhtiorskaya’s Russians are not land-grabbing invaders but land-seeking settlers who have traded the crumbling Soviet Union for an uncomplicated enclave of Brooklyn. As old world collides with new, Akhtiorskaya constructs an impressive tragicomedy about culture shock, integration and the tangle of family bonds.
The family in question is the Nasmertovs. In the first of two sections we follow them in Brighton Beach in 1993. Robert, Esther and their daughter, Marina, have called the United States home for two years. They welcome prodigal son and brother Pasha, who has arrived from Odessa for a short stay. Pasha is very much the black sheep: a poet and dreamer, averse to life decisions and heavyweight discussions, and the only family member who has renounced his Jewishness and refused to leave the motherland to tap into the American dream.
In the second section it is 2008, and the youngest Nasmertov, Marina’s teenage daughter, Frida, has flown to Odessa to attend a cousin’s wedding. A simple but effective framework emerges: Akhtiorskaya’s novel is a tale of two cities seen from two outsider perspectives.
Pasha explores Brooklyn, noting that an “odor of derangement hung about Brighton.” Odessa for Frida is bustling, chaotic and frustrating. At this point her Uncle Pasha, now 50, is an acclaimed poet and on his second marriage. Out is “the cold, insane, pasty, pear-shaped, droopy-haired Northern Nadia”; in is new love Sveta, a woman Pasha wooed with “antique ivory incense canisters, a bag of cotton balls, and a used toaster.”
Which leads to Akhtiorskaya’s comic touch. Despite the seriousness that imbues deaths in the family and problems with acclimatization, we are never far from sardonic asides (Pasha won’t meet Frida from the plane because “Russian poets didn’t do airport pickups”) or witty aperçus (“Headaches were like electronics-store fliers — you had one before you realized you had one”). Equally good are Akhtiorskaya’s many dizzying locutions and descriptions that are redolent of early Nabokov: a boy’s eyes are “eerily striking, like toxic sunsets over polluted waters.”
It is perhaps just as well we have this humor and bravura wordplay because Akhtiorskaya’s plot comprises only a string of observations and incidents: a tornado interrupting a day on the beach; mother and daughter in a banya; father and son stuck in the middle of a lake in a rowing boat without an oar. Fortunately, her rich language and ideas sublimate the mundane — “the katastrofa that is everyday life” — into something very special indeed.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh.