Kseniya Melnik’s Snow in May introduces a cast of characters bound by their relationship to the port town of Magadan in Russia’s Far East, a former gateway for prisoners assigned to Stalin’s forced-labor camps. Comprised of a surprising mix of newly minted professionals, ex-prisoners, intellectuals, musicians, and faithful Party workers, the community is vibrant and resilient and life in Magadan thrives even under the cover of near-perpetual snow.
By blending history and fable, each of Melnik’s stories transports us somewhere completely new: a married Magadan woman considers a proposition from an Italian footballer in ’70s Moscow; an ailing young girl visits a witch doctor’s house where nothing is as it seems; a middle-aged dance teacher is entranced by a new student’s raw talent; a former Soviet boss tells his granddaughter the story of a thorny friendship; and a woman in 1958 jumps into a marriage with an army officer far too soon.
Tell Me More: Distance is a familiar motif to anyone who has left the country of their birth. But whatever distance leaves in shadow, it also brings new perspectives to light. Kseniya Melnik writes of her birthplace, Magadan, with perspective and a fresh new gravity in these nine short stories.
It’s hard to write about a place that lives in memories. In Melnik’s hands, Magadan is a vibrant place with unique characteristics and characters. Each piece of the setting seems to complement its respective story, and the lilting, rhythmic dialogue is at once humourous and sharp. “Kuruchina” is especially powerful, serving as a dual commentary on the challenges of immigration and being a woman. The stark cultural differences are potent enough to drive the story, and it was easy for me to relate to Katya, as different as we are.
The characters are memorable, so much so that I’ll remember them on the train in to work and still smile or laugh. Among my favourites are Tanya of “Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas” and Olya of “Strawberry Lipstick.” There’s a hardiness to the female characters in these stories, born of practicality and sensibility in the middle of political and economic unrest. Still, there are hints of their idealism and need to dream of something more. Melnik draws links between them through several stories: Olya’s daughter Marina is in “Closed Fractures” and her daughter is the center of “Summer Medicine,” which brings us back to Olya herself. The connections provide a sense of history and solidarity for these women, and their stories tend to be the strongest in the collection.
My favourite stories:
“Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas”
“Our Upstairs Neighbor”
The Final Say: Just reading one story is impossible in this collection from Kseniya Melnik–Snow in May will draw you closer, like the first flakes in October draw us to the window to wonder.
Kseniya Melnik was born in Magadan, in the northeast of Russia, and immigrated to Alaska at age fifteen. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Epoch, Prospect (UK), Virginia Quarterly Review, and, in 2010, was selected for Granta Magazine’s New Voices series. She currently lives in El Paso, Texas.