SHORT STORIES/LITERARY FICTION
Hardcover (also available as an e-book and an audiobook), 978-0-3855-4529-7, 224 pgs., $25.95
March 10, 2020
If a building does not exist, are the inhabitants non-existent as well? Number 1933 Ivansk Street, somewhere in Ukraine, built from spare materials, is not officially listed on any form, yet the people living there are real and still need heat, sustenance, and affirmation.
The nine stories in Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva are divided into two parts but deeply connected by the thread of abandonment. These stories explore the many levels of such abandonment and the desire to remain relevant and remembered in a regulated society that is unfailingly unforgiving and routinely cruel to its good citizens during and after the Soviet Union regime.
Good Citizens Need Not Fear begins with a contradiction because once the stories are read and analyzed, it becomes clear that the title of this collection is sarcastic or even intimidating. The good citizens are indeed afraid of being forgotten, fired, alone, arrested, or abandoned. Reva’s stories are witty yet dark and foreboding, harboring bitter and biting humor that does little to veil the despair.
The first five stories take place in Ukraine during the USSR timeframe, connected by characters and the ongoing call for survival amid such difficult and dangerous times, especially for the poor, the hungry, and those desperate to be noticed yet remain unnoticed. The four stories in part two occur years after the fall of the USSR. The mood at this point should be better or at least without as much fear. Instead, part two crosses over into the macabre and melancholy but ends on the shaky and uncertain wings of hope and triumph.
The writing style and storylines are exceptional, unique to the author yet reminiscent of the classics. “Lucky Toss” taps into Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” when Mikhail Ivanovich is plagued by guilt after accidently knocking out and then losing the teeth of the relic saint he is entrusted to guard. The missing teeth haunt and mock him, similar to the beating heart in Poe’s story. In “Roach Brooch,” a grandson bequeaths a gem-encrusted Madagascar hissing cockroach on a chain to his grandparents. The roach is real and roams the apartment. Shades of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis are evident as the grandparents transfer their grief and greed onto the bejeweled roach, giving it the identify of their dead grandson.
Reva is direct in her presentation of this microcosm of life in Ukraine during and after the USSR. The characters flow, connect, veer off, and then rejoin years later. While all the characters have some connection with each other, little Zaya could be considered a linchpin. The first story, “Novostroïka,” sets the stage for the non-existent building, and Zaya’s story, “Little Rabbit,” follows and is heartbreaking and ghastly. Zaya is a survivor to the very end of the book and actually embodies the multi-faceted motif of abandonment that snakes its way through the pages. “Maybe nature isn’t a circle of life, but a circle of abandonment.” Zaya is abandoned at birth, yet she is the one to leave consistently throughout, including abandoning Konstantyn Illych and later reappearing during his hour of need. The constant ebb and surge of the characters as each story unfolds highlights how intimately they interact and exhibit their love, hatred, or indifference toward one another.
Good Citizens Need Not Fear is easy to read and entertaining yet disconcerting and complex. Through this collection of short stories, Reva showcases the harsh reality of oppression, poverty, abandonment, fear, and the constant scrabble simply to subsist and be counted as having a life worthy of acknowledgment.
Maria Reva writes fiction and libretti. Her linked story collection, Good Citizens Need Not Fear, is forthcoming in spring 2020 from Doubleday (US), Virago (UK), and Knopf Canada as part of its New Face of Fiction program. Reva’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Granta, The Journey Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. She won the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s RBC Bronwen Wallace Award in 2018 and a National Magazine Award in 2019.
Her musical collaborations include an opera libretto for ERATO Ensemble, texts for Vancouver International Song Institute’s Art Song Lab, and a script for City Opera Vancouver. In March 2017, musica intima vocal ensemble premiered Uta’s Escape, a commission by Canadian composer Jennifer Butler based on one of Maria’s stories.
Maria was born in Ukraine and grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia. She received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and is at work on a song cycle and novel.