Alrighty, let me start with all the information on the cover of the book, including the full title, author’s name, and other people involved. The author, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (she/her) is a Russian author, still alive, who was born in 1938 in the U.S.S.R. She started by writing plays that were censored by the Russian government. Eventually, she could publish short stories after the Soviet Union crumbled, like those found in this collection: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales (2009). The stories were selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, who also include a brief introduction that I recommend you read to learn a bit more about the author.
I felt skeptical going into this collection largely because I’d bought two of Petrushevskaya’s books at the same time and did not care for the first one: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories. Basically, if I recall correctly, the stories just didn’t add up for me. However, the scary fairy tales I’m reviewing today were much more successful.
The book is broken into four sections: Songs of the Eastern Slavs, Allegories, Requiems, and Fairy Tales. The imagery of hotel-like apartment living — run down spaces with neighbors close by (and maybe annoyed with your baby) — and the hunger that permeates everyone’s lives give you that feeling of the Russia I’ve seen in the news. I don’t pretend to know what life is truly like in Russia, though I have interviewed a Russian author who talks about famine.
Another reason I think Neighbor’s Baby is successful is thanks to Petrushevskaya’s attention to dream-like wandering. A person wakes up in a place they don’t recognize only to be directed to a place or person they don’t know. In a way, the stories often feel like they’re going in reverse or figure-eights.
In a story that begins, “There once lived a father who couldn’t find his children,” a man has no details about his offspring but is directed to “…take the local train to the Fortieth Kilometer stop.” After he debarks, he walks through the winter landscape until he reaches a forest with a path clearly traveled. He comes upon a hut, and much like the story of the three bears, he finds no one home but lets himself in to enjoy the fire and eat the food left out. When there’s a knock on the door, the man opens it to find a boy in raggedy clothes who knows nothing about himself and does not live there. The man cares for the boy. Eventually, a woman shows up. Perhaps you can see where this story is going, but as you read, you experience a dreamy sort of quality despite these three people doing what is fundamentally normal stuff: eating, keeping warm, sleeping.
In many stories it’s hard to know who’s dead and who is alive. Is this a ghost we’re dealing with, or someone who has jumped to a surreal timeline in which they receive a warning — or is it a threat? — from a loved one we also can’t tell is alive or dead. The whole collection is rather haunting and uses both fairy tales and Russia as a foundation for the spookiness. And to be clear, when I say “fairy tales” I mean the originals in which people don’t always fare well, not the Disney versions of teen girls finding adult princes to marry and then live happily ever after (the end).
Despite their similar foundations, each story is quite different. There is the timely story “Hygiene,” which recalls all things panicky about a pandemic. You get “There’s Someone in the House” in which the occupant, convinced she’s being haunted, starts destroying her property before the ghost can do something frightening with her things. I was especially intrigued by “Marilena’s Secret” in which twin ballerinas are cursed by a magician to live as one very fat woman all day with the exception of two hours each night when the fat woman separates and the ballerinas are magically coerced to dance. The story is fat positive, highlighting Marilena’s physical strength, her love of shopping for clothes, the beauty of her vibrant white teeth, and the wealth she accumulates through her performance in a circus.
I really enjoyed There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby because it kept me guessing, kept me wondering, and had a lot of spooky heart behind each story. I look forward to learning more about Ludmilla Petrushevskaya when I read her memoir. She’s been called the most important living Russian writer, but I’ll gamble that most of us had never heard of her before.
CW: mention of abortion, sizeism, physical violence off the page, mention of suicide.