Not Seeing the Trees for the Forest

Book Review for “All Russians Love Birch Trees” by Olga Grjasnowa.

dac8e-allrussiansMaria (aka Masha), was born to turmoil as a Jew in Baku, Azerbaijan, who fled with her family to Germany in the 1990s. From birth she was always been an outsider. And no amount of her learning so many languages – including Russian, Arabic, German and French – ever made her feel like she fit in. The other outcasts she knows – Beirut born Sami who has problems with his visa to the US, and Cem the German born Turk who she cannot love – don’t make things better. But with her German boyfriend Elias – or as she calls him, Elisha – she has found some refuge. So when he breaks his femur playing soccer, and the subsequent complications kill him, she’s thrown into turmoil that she can’t cope with, together with the guilt she can’t escape.

Despite what I read about this book from the publisher’s blurb, I didn’t find this story to have much humor or irony in it. In fact, I found it to be a very harsh and difficult tale, which was at the same time an extremely compelling read. This may be partially because, from what I can discern, quite a bit of this story is autobiographical. But just because you have an unusual background, doesn’t mean you know how to tell a good story, and this is something that Grjasnowa certainly knows how to do. What is more, she does so without trying to whitewash anything, while at the same time keeping a serene undertone to her voice that almost belies the chaos that Masha is going on around her, and in her head.

This contrast is a perfect parallel to Masha herself. On the one hand, it seems like Masha is someone who – under normal circumstances – would be a completely likable and congenial person. She attracts perfect strangers like flies to honey, and practically everyone she meets becomes somehow attached to her within moments. However, whatever it is about her that brings people into Masha’s life, she seems to only pretend to become involved with them. On the outside Masha allows these people to carry her off to places new and unknown, but on the inside Masha is deeply troubled, having imprisoned herself in her own personal hell. And while some of the things she encounters along the way are hellish, nothing seems to be quite as disturbing as her own history.

While most of this book is a portrait of a woman who is slowing losing it even as she’s desperately trying to find herself, Masha’s story isn’t without a real journey. In this case, we go from the horrors of her last memories of Baku and growing up in Germany, to her running away to Israel after the living through Elisha’s injury and death.

What is most striking here is how Grjasnowa mixes the chronological aspect with Masha’s past. Here too the contrast comes into play. On the most basic level, this book tells Masha’s story starting from the morning Elias goes to his soccer match, and along all the events that bring her to a climactic point while she’s in Israel. Grjasnowa then merges into this all sorts of pieces from Masha’s childhood, past relationships, and recent indiscretions. The fact that these flashbacks come at random, and even in the middle of paragraphs that describe the immediate action, without ever confusing the reader, is proof of Grjasnowa’s talent.

Grjasnowa certainly has a very strong voice, which she has applied to a very ambitious and seemingly personal subject, to give us an admirable debut novel. Even so, this book isn’t without its faults. To begin with, I found a few unfortunate mistakes regarding Israel (that only Israeli readers will catch). Some of this might have to do with the translation, which aside from this, was masterfully done by Eva Bacon. I also felt that the third part of the book lost some of the strong focus on Masha. This is when Masha arrives in Israel and meets two very dynamic people – Ori and Tal – who are brother and sister. While I understand that their inclusion was important to Masha’s character development, I think we could have done with less of their idiosyncrasies than we were given, simply because Masha is herself so unconventional. Thankfully, this was mostly resolved in the concluding fourth part of the book.

As for the significance of the title, it too is a contrast of sorts. This comes from one of the characters in the book who rattles it off along with a list of other stereotypical statements about various people from different countries. What makes it such an apt title is that there is absolutely no one portrayed here that could possible fit into any of the usual ethnic clichés. I found this to be a pure stroke of genius. All this shows that Grjasnowa is a truly gifted writer, and with a touch more polishing, has a very bright future ahead of her. I’m giving “All Russians Love Birch Trees” by Olga Grjasnowa a solid four out of five stars and strongly recommend it.

“All Russians Love Birch Trees” by Olga Grjasnowa was published by Other Press in January, 2013, is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Waterstones, Walmart (Kobo) eBooks, iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.

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