There Once Lived A Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Translated by Anna Summers

Penguin Random House 2014
ISBN 978-0-14-312166-4

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“. . . disturbing and depressing, yet also exalting and interesting . . . “

Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s three black-humored-laced novellas in “There Once Lived A Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In” lays bare the painful and ugly details of extreme suffering of lower classes in the former Soviet Union between 1964-1982.

Her best known,“ Among Friends,” was censored by Soviet authorities for nearly two decades. It’s about an apolitical group of ex-college friends who meet every Friday, mostly get drunk, poke fun at each other and exchange spouses. The narrator who believes she is dying viciously abuses her beloved child in front of the group which includes her estranged husband who has just married another group member. This horrific action motivates her husband to take the child and to save him from a life in orphanage. Petrushevskaya’s free-flowing narrative describes a culture in which a father would easily abandon his child unless embarrassed into taking on a parental role.

The stories detail a time of great shortages, when families went to extremes to survive. In “The Time is Night.” When Anna learns her schizophrenic mother will be permanently confined to an asylum, she attempts to rescue her so she can continue receiving her pension. Without it, Anna doesn’t know how she can feed the grandson who lives with her. The little money she earns as a poet is stolen by her son, and now her homeless daughter will be having a third child.

The tough times similarly affect an upstairs neighbor, from whose apartment comes a “blood-chilling sound,” the neighbor “pounding bones for tomorrow’s soup.”

In her most recent story, “Chocolates with Liqueur,” translated for the first time in this book, Lelia is a victim of horrific violence inflicted by her estranged psychopath husband. But she has nowhere to go, because her husband owns their apartment. Again, Petrushevskaya, using compressed dialogue, draws deep into human suffering made even more intense by draconian Soviet rules.

Ann Summers, who translated this collection, describes Petrushevskaya’s works as disturbing and depressing, yet also exalting and interesting reading because of the mordantly witty asides of her narrators. I agree. Reading the collection is emotionally draining, from the political interrogations of her characters, to extreme hunger and oppression where one must register to avoid jail. But it’s also rewarding.

Reviewer: Kate Padilla