Set in late-1970s to late-1990s Russia and Germany, Alina Bronsky's second novel, "The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine," does provide a side view of life in late Soviet Russia -- the scarcity of food, the impetus to rub out one's individual ethnic identity. But its focus is on the singular Tartar narrator, Rosalinda, and her tumultuous relationships with her daughter and granddaughter.

From the very beginning, it's clear that you have an atypical book on your hands: It practically opens with Rosalinda plotting how to abort her disappointing teenage daughter's baby (she only wants what's best for her daughter ... and her own reputation). Rosalinda and her harsh, over-the-top personality is both the cause of numerous conflicts in "The Hottest Dishes," and what brings dark humor to conflicted situations -- at least for the reader, if not for Rosalinda's hapless company.

Rosalinda's voice dominates the narrative, from her words all the way down to a structural level, as even the short, straightforward sentences and chapters reflect her brusqueness. But her defining feature is her self-regard, which is so outrageously high as to make her delusional. Though quite entertaining, this characteristic also makes her unreliable as a narrator. And while her narration occasionally has personal, confessional moments, for the most part her self-praise gives the impression that she is constantly performing, or trying to convince someone of her worth -- in other words, the opposite of candid.

It's clear that Bronsky is in on the joke when it comes to the comicality of Rosalinda's narration, as when Rosalinda makes frequent comments about being "too honest and too good-natured," or remarks, "I stood up elegantly. Not everyone had the ability to gracefully extricate oneself from a soft chair. But I did." Conversely, Bronsky is also able to take a step back and be hands-off, so to speak, during more stressful moments. For example, when Rosalinda finds out that her granddaughter might be moved to a foreign country without her, there is no facetiousness at all in her saying, "If Aminat disappeared from my life, she would take all color and sound with her. And then there was no point to anything anymore."

The fact that our entire experience of "The Hottest Dishes" is through the eyes of one eccentric woman is, technically, limiting. However, work that's done within limitations can be just as rich and complex as that with a broader scope; intense situations are both more and less affecting when the person describing them doesn't have a full grasp, or give an honest account, of the situation. Despite her harshness, Rosalinda ends up a not entirely unsympathetic character. "The Hottest Dishes" is her extremely subjective reality, and we're just along for the ride, all the way until the not entirely lucid end.

  • Kim Hedges is an editor and book reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area.