I'd already defined and hopefully side-stepped the inherent dangers of slogging through prizelist reading when I embarked on this year's Orange longlist journey and I suspect if this prize behaves itself (as in no more gimmicks re media-attractive judges for me to sulk over) I will earmark it again for a regular annual read.
But this is prizelist reading so I was therefore up for whatever The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight by Gina Ochsner was going to throw at me and I was instantly and strangely quite smitten from the first page.
Truth be told I was very relieved to escape from the world of the slave narrative to a latter-day Russia, the northern town of Perm in the Urals to be exact and the fifth coldest town in Russia. Except on reflection if this book hadn't been so quirky, wry and funny perhaps it was a slave narrative of another sort.
Meeting the residents of a run-down apartment block with one latrine shared between them all was quite an experience and in the hands of Gina Ochsner no wonder this book got off to such a flyingly readable start.
Moments of great hilarity as a cast of wonderful characters are gathered, introduced and firmly established for the reader to love for their struggles and failings in a system where if you 'scratch a Russian and you'll find a Tatar' and the pervasive influence of Lenin 'like a yeast constantly reasserting itself.'
'Because everybody's sorrow wore the same clothes, knotted and threaded he same way, they all understood what they were working for.'
But the ideals have crumbled and with it for the residents of the apartment, so has the fabric of their lives and their homes. Living and working in near poverty and squalor you know to be worried for somone like Tanya whose mother has disappeared into the Gulag.
Poor Tanya with her 'unfortunate dentition' and 'big thighs' living with the oppressive negativity of her grandmother has taken its toll,
'Her trouble: she did not yet possess a fully inflatable super-buoyant self-esteem'
and she's most certainly going to need this and more if she's to achieve her ambition of becoming a stewardess with Aeroflot with its
'thoroughly established reputation of aviation disaster.'
For a start Tanya has a weight issue, hips a little too wide to cope with svelte aisle walking, so she can but dream as she whiles away the hours along with several of the residents who work for the All-Russia All-Cosmopolitan Museum of Art and Anthropology.Work being the operative word because wages seem to be a thing of the past and all the exhibits are fakes anyway, made of foam or anything else that comes to hand and will do to knock up a replica Mig fighter jet or something.
When the Americans of Russian Extraction for the Causes of Beautification arrive to assess the museum for grant status you can only begin to imagine the mayhem.
Woven in moments of surreal and ghost-laden magical realism which seems to blend into the old Russia, the Russia of tradition, of oral story-telling, myth and fable
'...tradition was not some silly ritual or toneless chant, but one woman after another, a mother singing into the ear of her daughter the words and the melody of an ancient unbroken song, which Tanya was learning, almost always sounded like suffering.'
and there's even some knitting.
I was quite relieved to spot this, how good to know that despite the deprivation the indigenous crafts continue in the hands of translator Olga who eyes up Chief Editor Kaminski's comb-over and thinks it would knit up into a nice tea cosy.
Even I hadn't thought of that.
I had elevated this book to my shortlist on the risky basis of half a read and in the end I think it might not have made it on a full read. But it was a good book, an unusual one and one I'm very pleased to have read, anyone who loves anything with that Russian flavour will enjoy this one for its difference and otherness.
By now you can probably tell that I'm finding it hard to pin down the essence of this really unusual book and on final analysis perhaps I'm not supposed to be doing that at all,
'Language was, after all, just word-shaped stains, simply another way people hide themselves from one another, one more way to evade and osbcure the truth.'