Review: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby

How have I never heard of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya before? Admittedly, my reading of contemporary Russian literature is dependent on the availability of English translations, since my Russian reading ability is torturously slow. The title of this collection of works appeared in my Goodreads suggestions: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby.

It sent a chill up my spine. Taboo elements – murder perpetuated by a woman, and the murder of a child at that – written by a Russian woman. It seemed an impossible and fateful genre as well: scary fairytales, and I can’t say no to horror writing.

Her own biography is larger than life – Petrushevskaya was born during the peak of Stalin’s purges, many members of her family were killed or arrested. She survived a state-run children’s home. Ingrid Norton has written an amazing article chronicling details of her life. I will need to find out more about the author. She is now in her seventies and still going strong. She had been a playwright, a singer, and a visual artist in addition to being a prolific writer.

In their truest form, fairytales are undeniably dark. We are attracted to tales of murder, depravity and disfigurement by our basest and most primitive drives. In recent years, writers seem to have tapped into the roots of these ways of telling stories, trying to restore them to their original glory, before the time of Disney-fication. Fairytales are core to our oral and written literary traditions.

I read the whole collection of There Once Lived a Woman… in a single sitting, and I will read it again, this time with a more considered, careful intention. The first was a startling and completely unexpected shock. With the spare precision of fairy-stories, Petrushevskaya conveys an assault of emotions and experiences: rage, despair and envy are limited to single words, if they are mentioned at all. The universality of these is their power. And they are couched in horrific and wondrous events.

In an introduction by Gessen and Summers, the translators describe the author’s strength in being able to convey a liberating sense of hope that transcends the despair depicted. I found it difficult to read it this way, rather the tragedy of the world portrayed by Petrushevskaya is complete, and any hope is incidental, not deliberate. In these kinds of fairytales, hope and happy endings are not a given.

Perhaps my reading of the collection is a result of my background. I’m not sure what the people I’ve recommended this to will think, if the nuances and threats that loom in the stories will have the same effect on them. In one story, “The Miracle”, a teenage son is desperate for a tape recorder. He stops eating, is affected by a fever. His mother goes eventually buys one for him from a kiosk. I was struck by the desperation of wanting things in the Soviet Union. I remembered the stories my parents told me about the luxury of having a radio or music player – rare, coveted objects.

Other details may not translate easily to readers unfamiliar with Soviet life. The reality of living in a communal apartment. I remember my parents’ anecdotes of the trials and difficulties of communal life, particularly with little children in tow – the rivalries and lack of privacy, the smothering closeness of strangers.

Petrushevskaya also frequently references the threat of compulsory military conscription. In writing Birch I came across a range of material describing the ordeals of life for military conscripts, including the chilling article by Gregory Katz for The Atlantic. It is no wonder the mothers in Petrushevskaya’s prose are so desperate to save their sons – or that the sons go to such lengths to spare themselves, including dangling from cords.

The words ‘desperation’ and ‘despair’ keep coming to mind as I think about these stories. And it is little wonder. Suicidal boys, men who drink themselves to death, infants weeping in empty apartment blocks. A woman hangs herself in the forest, leaving behind her baby daughter to be looked after by a grandmother with a drinking problem… who palms the infant off to strangers and then demands the return of the stroller the infant came in. Bleakness, emptiness, desperation – the bones of fairytales. It is no wonder that Petrushevskaya’s writing was “out of favour” in the time of the Soviet Union.

For me, the most iconic story is “Revenge” – the one for which the collection is named. A woman comes to despise her neighbour’s baby and plots to harm and kill it in various ways, including leaving boiling water out for it to find, sprinkling needles in the hallway. The narrative has a mad, obsessive pattern to it, and a cruel fairytale twist that is emblematic of these stories.

Further reading:

  • There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (2009)

  • “A Russian Soldier’s Story” (Gregory Katz, The Atlantic, 2006)

  • “Truth through Fairy Tale: Despair and Hope in the Fiction of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya” (Ingrid Norton, Dissent Magazine, 2009)

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