Russia's turbulent history reverberates through three generations of one family, reflecting the different political and social forces that shape their fate in Anthony Marra's elegant collection of linked stories.

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This article was published 31/10/2015 (1989 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Russia's turbulent history reverberates through three generations of one family, reflecting the different political and social forces that shape their fate in Anthony Marra's elegant collection of linked stories.

Common characters and a single narrative arc connect the stories, beginning with an artist assigned to eliminate disgraced individuals from photographs and paintings during the purges of 1937. His act of defiance: to insert his disappeared brother into the pictures, from his childhood likeness to how the artist imagines him in old age. The retouched images are a past that can't be expunged, a ghost following son and grandson even after the socialist state crumbled, replaced by oligarchs.

Although some stories are set in St. Petersburg and the Arctic exile city of Kirovsk, Marra also returns to the conflict in Chechnya, the setting for his 2013 debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. In The Tsar of Love and Techno, people try to rebuild a sense of normalcy in the wake of the disastrous Russian intervention that left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead and towns and cities levelled.

Marra explores the influence of family ties on the trajectory of individuals' lives. A man knowingly sacrifices his wellbeing to ensure a better life for his brother; an old woman fears her daughter is repeating disastrous mistakes of her own childhood; a gallery director finds peace when he finds a way to put his dead family to rest.

As in A Constellation, Marra's prose is lyrical and affecting. His characters are sensitively drawn souls trying to survive psychologically and physically while they are buffeted by events. Women sent to the gulag hope for a better future for their granddaughters: "Someday they will realize that what makes them unremarkable is what keeps them alive." The dead in Chechnya are not forgotten. Their lovers remember them -- "lying awake in their empty beds, even when the door is shut and no one can hear or see us, we still think in the plural voice."

Sardonic wit helps characters get by. A proud father listens to his son work the long-distance line, sweet-talking an American out of her identity in the new entrepreneurial Russia. A child develops a grim outlook on life: "The institutions we believe in will pervert us, our loved ones will fail us, and death is a falling piano."

Marra, a resident of Oakland, Calif., studied in Moscow, where he saw young men -- disabled, drunk and dissolute -- begging for rubles in the subway and on the street. They were traumatized veterans of the brutal Chechen wars of 1994-96 and 1999-2009, castoffs from society, their lives ruined. Constellation won praise and awards from critics everywhere.

Marra's interest in Russia extended to the Soviet era, resulting in this elegy for a nation whose people fought hard for its establishment and had so much hope in its infancy.

If there's a complaint, it's that the last story, an overly sentimental extraterrestrial imagining, breaks the spell.

That's a quibble about an otherwise-moving saga. Marra is a careful, caring observer of the human condition, a deft stylist whose writing leaves us wanting more.

 

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.