Rights sold: Russia - AST
Longlisted for the 2019 National Bestseller Award
Ksenia Buksha's 2018 collection of short stories, Opens Inward, follows a transport route stretching from one end of her own Petersburg region to the other while interlocking its denizens in a poignant triptych of birth (“Orphanage”), life (“The Asylum”), and death (“Last Stop”).
Buksha’s collection provides a fitting occasion for reviving old cliché: this is “a whole world packed under a single cover.” Dozens of stories,all true to life, weave together, intersect, and fall apart around the trajectory of Route 306. Characters drive along it, wait beside it, or watch it from their windows. Those who star as protagonists in one story make a brief cameos in others, flash in and out of the reader’s peripheral vision, and simply pop up in conversation, creating the illusion of a space that is both very dense and thoroughly inhabited. That space also feels practically infinite — it stretches far beyond the horizon.
The book is divided into three parts. The first, titled “The Orphanage,” displays all the possible species and subspecies of parentlessness from all possible angles. Thirteen year-old Asya suspects that the woman who raised her is not her birth mother and takes great pains to construct the questions that might enable her to learn the truth about herself. On the way, she adopts three children from an orphanage: a tame young girl named Dasha who is still grieving her own recentlydeceased mother and two orphaned boys — the mischievous Roma and his brother, little Seryozha. In another story, terrible teen Angelica battles her adoptive mother “Aunt Lena,” a chess coach, without realizing what terrible cost Lena paid to save her from slavery in a children’s home. (The reader does realize this at the very end of the story, but only thanks to a brief aside tossed out by one of the characters.) Zhenya, a grown-up orphan who seems to have been entirely well-socialized, makes occasional trips to the city to meet her doppleganger, the person she could have been if her life had been just slightly different. Alisa, who takes drugs that have expanded her waistline to the point that she passes for pregnant, sits in the foyer of a swimming pool watching a strange, lonely boy in a ragged jacket.
The book’s second part, “The Asylum,” unites stories of insanity, some of which are autonomous and some of which are connected to the orphans. It is here, for example, that we discover exactly what pills Alisa has been taking. The last part, “Finale,” features stories of death in which many of the book’s plots find their end or acquire a new beginning. This is where we learn how Dasha’s mother died and just what happened to the parents of the boy wearing rags.
All that said, the borders between the parts of Opens Inward feel provisional, just like any attempt to dismember the variegated, fluid, morally ambiguous fabric of being. And it is that wholeness, that highly tragic amorality, that incredible ability to convey existential horror without falling into either sentimentality or despair, that is the greatest achievement of this brilliant — and that's not an exaggeration — collection by Ksenia Buksha. In a word, if anyone alive today can lay claim to the title of the Russian Alice Munro, it is undoubtedly she.