Wendy Blackburn Recommends

There Are Jews in My House is a collection of stories that takes its title from the first (and longest) story, in which a young gentile woman offers refuge to a Jewish friend and her daughter during World War II, and then grows so resentful about their presence that she contemplates turning them in. The five stories that follow are also about Russian, or Russian-American, culture, but Vapnyar goes so far beyond the sleeping-four-to-a-room-and-smell-of-boiling-potatoes immigrant story cliché and so deep into the emotional lives of the people in these stories that it is impossible to lump There Are Jews in My House in with other WWII/Russia/Coming to America tales-these are stories woven together by the common threads of longing, secrecy, and emotional turmoil; these are stories about the human experience with all its intricacy and contradiction and complexity. And I fell in love with it from the opening line (which, incidentally, does involve potatoes, but excusably so).

Vapnyar’s voice is distinct, her command of the language impressive-even without this added wow-factor: English is not her native tongue (she emigrated from Russia to the US just 9 years prior to the publication of this book). But rather than putting a limitation on her writing, this newness frees her; she is not bogged down by decades of vocabulary, blinded by the glare of abundance, compelled to sling adjectives around haphazardly. Nothing clutters the starkness, not one stray phrase that she left in simply because she liked the sound of it. Her brilliance lies in her subtlety-she is painstakingly careful with her words, as with a strong spice: use sparingly. Vapnyar extracts moments, gentle and precise like a surgeon, from her subjects’ lives. Like:

(From the title story) “She took a cold teakettle off the stove and began drinking hungrily right out of its rough tin spout. The streams of water ran down her chin and her neck, causing her skin to break out in goose bumps.”

(From “Ovrashki’s Trains,” a story told from the point of view of a 5-year-old girl about her summer spent in a dacha near a train station, and her obsession with finding her long-absent father) “I pulled on my old rubber boots, which were a little too tight around the toes, and my shiny bright blue raincoat. I splashed down the steps and ran into the garden that smelled of jasmine and rain.”

Imagine: 149 pages of this delightfully bare prose. As a writer, I am in awe. As a reader, this book has never left my nightstand.

It’s not just that the stories are so striking, or that Vapnyar’s writing is so exquisite-though either of these things on their own would be reason enough to recommend this book-it’s the uncanny way in which the two are fused together: like an onomatopoeia of sorts, the words themselves feel like the worlds she writes about. There is grace, and sadness, and not a lot of fluff. No fluff at all, actually. Her work is elegant and plain and pure, pared down-like bones, or a single flame burning in a dark room.

Wendy Blackburn is the author of Beachglass (May 2006) which is a St Martin’s Reps’ Pick, an Amazon.com editor’s pick, and a PNBA award nominee. She is also a counselor and a mother, and she lives in the Seattle area.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.