In her sure-handed debut volume of short fiction, Good Citizens Need Not Fear, Maria Reva writes with an insider’s familiarity about the last days of the Soviet Union and what followed in the months and years after the Communist regime’s ignominious collapse.
Reva’s stories, filled with absurdist twists and farcical comic moments, describe her characters’ struggle for survival in a world of decaying infrastructure, chronic shortages and surly, inflexible bureaucrats. Somehow, despite severe economic hardship and great physical discomfort, Reva’s people find ways to fudge a rigid, rule-bound system and make a go of it.
The stories, divided into two sections (“Before the Fall,” “After the Fall”), centre on the residents of the apartment building at 1933 Ivansk Street in the Ukrainian town of Kirovka, a building that, in the opening story, “Novostroika,” has its very existence called into question by a government official even though the story’s protagonist, the hapless Daniil, who is visiting the town council hall to make a complaint about the faulty heating system, lives there with thirteen other family members.
“Little Rabbit” introduces the reader to one of several recurring characters. As a newborn with a harelip, Zaya is consigned to a home for unwanted infants—the “baby house”—and raised by staff caregivers, known as sanitarki. Despite the odds against her, little Zaya fiercely embraces life but is eventually committed to the internat, a facility for hopeless cases housed in a decommissioned monastery. There, she falls ill with pneumonia but escapes the shallow grave awaiting her by burrowing into the catacombs beneath the building, where she forms a deep attachment to the mummified body of a saint.
In “Letter of Apology” the narrator, Mikhail Ivanovich, an official with “the agency,” is sent to Kirovka to discipline the poet Konstantyn Illych, who has been overheard telling a joke about the regime. Konstantyn Illych can avoid punishment by retracting his “wrongful evaluations of the leaders of the Communist Party and Soviet society at large” and issuing an apology in writing. But Konstantyn Illych is unfazed by Mikhail Ivanovich’s threats and steadfastly ignores him. In the meantime, Mikhail Ivanovich, who has never heard the joke because it is forbidden to repeat it, unravels under ever greater pressure from his superiors to extract the apology. In the end, Mikhail Ivanovich reaches a fragile understanding with the poet’s wife, Milena, finally concluding that the joke is really on him.
And in “Miss USSR,” Konstantyn Illych, engaged in another subversive activity, organizes a beauty pageant in Kirovka and thereby brings down on himself the wrath of the new Minister of Culture. When the Minister organizes a national pageant modelled on but splashier than the one in Kirovka, Konstantyn Illych decides to show her up by entering a contestant. But with the winner of his Miss Kirovka pageant exiled to Siberia, he ends up recruiting Zaya. Predictably, things do not turn out as he had hoped.
Maria Reva’s brand of humour in these stories is broad and laden with irony; her action sequences tend toward the slapstick and highly improbable. For the most part the reader is pleasantly entertained, though Reva does occasionally indulge a fondness for illogic and weirdness, allowing the story to meander. This happens infrequently, but when it does the joke wears thin and the comic scenario becomes over-familiar and tiresome (“Lucky Toss”).
But despite the occasional minor misstep, Good Citizens Need Not Fear remains a notable debut by a uniquely skilled and confident writer with huge talent that, based on the evidence, will only grow with time.
- FINALIST FOR THE WRITERS’ TRUST FICTION PRIZE
- FINALIST FOR THE RAKUTEN KOBO EMERGING WRITER PRIZE
- A GLOBE AND MAIL BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
MARIA REVA was born in Ukraine and grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia. She has an MFA in fiction and playwriting from the Michener Center at the University of Texas. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories (2017 and 2019), McSweeney’s and Granta. She currently lives in Vancouver, and also works as an opera librettist.
- Publisher : Random House of Canada (Jan. 27 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 224 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0735281963
- ISBN-13 : 978-0735281967
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