“Maidenhair” is not light reading

Interesting review of Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, published last month by Open Letter Press. This one has been in my stack for a while now. Hope to get to it before long . . .

“Maidenhair” is not light reading. The interlocking narratives fuse and fragment in this literary masterpiece, whose ambitious goal encompasses the recreation of language in order to express truths about love and death, loss and happiness. One idea that weaves its way into each of the stories is that “whoever can be happy right now, should,” that pain and joy are connected: “True enjoyment of life can only be felt if you’ve known suffering.”

Whole pages without paragraphs catalogue the minutiae of personal recollections, the details of life that mean nothing and everything. There are references to detective novels as the narrator tries to infer the truth from tiny clues. The “Maidenhair” of the title is a fern that grows wild among the Roman ruins the interpreter visits with his wife. This delicate, green weed “grew here before your Eternal city and will grow here after.”

It is one of many recurring images that come to signify so much, like the disappointingly muddy River Tiber, representing reality: “You have to love that Tiberian world!” the interpreter’s re-imagined teacher tells him towards the end. She also criticizes the novel’s key stylistic feature: “You always mixed everything up!” The ancient Greeks are one thing, the Chechens another, the teacher tells him, but in Shishkin’s tale, they become aspects of united human experience. Soldiers and lovers tell their stories: “And there will always be war for tomorrow.”

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