There are Russian novels and then there are Russian novels. Today I’m talking not about the classics (if I was, I’d be talking about Anna Karenina again) but about contemporary novels set in Russia. If you haven’t read any of the noteworthy titles below, you have some great reading ahead of you.
1. The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin
This is Russian in every sense—set in Russia, about a Russian artist, by a Russian writer worthy of her heritage. Anatoly Sukhanov, former experimental artist turned Communist art critic, finds his sleep troubled as his past and present merge in Grushin’s memorable first novel. Intense characterization, surrealist art, gorgeous writing and a mysterious ending—it’s all there. (And if you love it, try her second novel, The Line.)
2. The Mirrored World by Debra Dean
St. Petersburg shimmers with mysticism and music, poverty and nobility in Dean’s second historical novel. (Her first, The Madonnas of Leningrad, recounts the heroic protection of art during World War II.) This one retells the story of how a member of Empress Elizabeth’s court becomes Russia’s most beloved St. Xenia—from the perspective of the woman who was both a sister and a stranger to her.
3. Hunger by Elise Blackwell
During the siege of 1941 (while Dean’s art keepers were protecting the madonnas in the Hermitage), a botanist and his associates try to protect the rare specimens in Leningrad’s Botanical Institutes from the starving masses—including themselves. Blackwell’s debut is structured as a series of aged remembrances, quiet, desperate and touching.