“The Time is Night” is the first story about a grandmother, Anna, who is a poet subsisting as she tries to keep food on her table for herself and her grandson. We meet Anna and Tima as she seeks charity from others who are themselves struggling. Through the first person narrative, the reader soon comes to see Anna’s complexity. She is a long-suffering artist who seems enamored with her martyr status, sacrificing everything for the sake of others while never acknowledging her own role in her dire circumstances. If she is not necessarily likable, she is at least recognizable, reflecting the worst in ourselves.
“Chocolates With Liqueur,” according to the translator’s introduction, is an homage to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and it works perfectly at that level. Lelia is married to a brutal man and fears for herself and the safety of her children. What hope she has for survival is desperately stifled by a system that makes it impossible for her to do anything that could protect any of them, leading to a climax that is truly reminiscent of the best of Poe.
“Among Friends” concludes the collection with another first person narrative about a mother who describes the weekly gatherings of some longtime friends, the curious intimacies that develop over time. The unnamed narrator is herself married and a mother, but her marriage is falling apart, as is the center that holds the friends together. Serving as both an indictment of the bourgeoisie attitude of the intelligentsia, this short story creates a striking claustrophobic sense of doom, culminating in a startling conclusion.
These three stories are well written, evocative in their starkness, drawing a curtain back on life in Soviet Russia. There is nothing comfortable or comforting about these stories and yet they draw you in, invite you to see the hateful foibles of humanity even as you want to turn away from what is perhaps too familiar. This is humanity at its most honest. And its most tragic because it isn’t dramatic or earth-shattering, just small lives that make ripples on the reader’s hearts nonetheless.