by Zarina Zabrisky
Epic Rites Press, 2012
When writing about a foreign country or using a language other than English, writers in the United States always take a risk. Will readers believe her details, the depth with which she presents the foreign land? Zarina Zabrisky, born in Russia and now living in California, carefully builds a relationship of trust with her readers as she leads them down a dark and scary road in Communist Russia in her collection Iron.
Iron is a 79-page collection containing four stories centered around or in Russia. Preceding each story is a picture of a malicious sort of doll’s face, up close and dirty, which sets the mood for the dark spin each story takes. In “Weeping Poppies,” two boys and a girl in their late teens stalk fields north of Leningrad looking for poppy flowers to make into heroin with the deadline of making a train at dawn. In “The Cross of David,” two immigrants avoid the topic of their pasts because happiness lies in the future, but even their pretending can’t keep away memories. “The Hungry Duck” follows Nadya and her powerful American boyfriend, but her plans of having a better life than her family might be lost when her pathetic cousin arrives. The title story instills the most fear in readers when two sisters are taken by several Georgian men as repayment for Russia’s offenses.
Zabrisky’s sentence style is brief and easily inserts Russian words or places into those sentences, which feels both true to the author’s history but doesn’t disrupt the flow of comprehension. Nadya awakens outside a club and realizes “what was so terrible. The night was red, the darkness itself was red. The meaty bricks of the Kremlin wall, its teeth sharp, the erect finger of the Tower, the heavy Moscow river–everything around glowed red, soaked with blood. The cobblestones oozed with blood. The snow dazzled with blood.” Even her descriptions feel authentic; the club scene in “The Hungry Duck” reads nothing like an American club, with all the woman stripping naked and happily dancing while male tourists flood in to take advantage. The whole scene read like the moment in horror movies when the unsuspecting backpacker, typically from the U.S., parties like he/she only has in his/her wildest dreams to wake up chained to a wall. Of course, Zabrisky doesn’t stereotype Russia, which adds to the authenticity of her stories.
The fact that the collection is so short was another benefit for me. With so much to read and so many collections passing 200 pages, Iron was different in that it was a book that I was able to enjoy in one sitting. The result was I strongly remembered each of the four pieces and processed them throughout the day, far longer than some stories that seem extraneous in much lengthier collections. I can still see the doors of the train closing. The hot iron smashing into the valuable glass items. Carl’s alert, powerful eyes. Peggy’s plasticine face as she tries to erase what has come before.
I was a bit confused by the focus on Peggy in “The Cross of David,” who seemed more like a vehicle for the narrator to remember her own childhood in Russia compared to her present life in San Francisco. Regardless, I wouldn’t consider that a reason to disregard the story or what the narrator remembers, as she leaves a deep, dark image in the reader’s mind and leaves hearts feeling stone cold.
I’d like to see what Zabrisky can do in novel form; her characters are the kind I wanted to go on longer, to teach me more about their lives. We, Monsters, her first novel, is forthcoming November 2013 from Numina Press.