There Once Lived A Woman…… – Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Penguin 2011)

Day 37 without internet access.  I would like to thank BT Open Reach and EE Broadband providers for their continued commitment to making things as difficult as possible. My  latest date for Open Reach to switch my internet on has passed without anything happening and I am told that my next review date (what the hell are they reviewing- I can’t find that out is December 22nd).  EE will not send me out a router until the line is “live” so unlikely to have any change of situation until the New Year.  My local library is providing the access for today- but will be shut over Xmas and New Year period.  Anyway…this is what I have been reading.



Who in their right mind would read a book called “There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby” with the subtitle “Scary Fairy Tales”?  Well, here’s your answer.  The title alone was enough to make me have it on my wishlist for a number of years and seeing it on the library shelves recently I had to give it a go.  It certainly isn’t the most popular book in the library with my date stamp being only the second in two years so it is very much an acquired taste, but one I was looking forward to experiencing.

This appeared in 2011 in the UK in a translation by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers (two Americans- and this does read very much like an American translation) and was launched as a Penguin Modern Classic.  This has very much to do with the reputation of 78 year old Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, who is feted as one of Russia’s greatest living writers.  This is after years of her works being repressed in her own country and unavailable in the west.  By 1992 she was receiving much acclaim for works such as her novel “Time: Night” and her output recognises the importance of the oral tradition of storytelling, especially amongst Russian women.  This collection of fairy tales, allegorical stories, requiems and “songs of the eastern slavs” became her first publication in the English language and sold well and won a World Fantasy Award.  There was an even more evocatively titled follow-up of stories “There Was Once A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself” which seems like a contender for one of those very short story awards.  After reading this first collection, I am not sure if I will be rushing to add that to my To Be Read list.

I very much like the idea of dark fairy tales but I am wondering if they are culture specific.  The classic tales of Andersen, Grimm and Perrault have lost their original identity and have largely been incorporated into the English psyche.  Those that feel the most Danish, German or French have perhaps not made the transition so well.  We had, in this country, a great dark storyteller in Angela Carter.  I did not find Petrushevskaya’s very Russian tales penetrating into me in quite the same way.  This is, I feel, how fairy tales work, they penetrate into the subconscious to be recalled at times when they are needed- moral lessons or life experiences which work on a very primitive level very much enhanced by the oral tradition.  I do not think many of these stories in this collection will stay with me.

I am not denying the oral tradition feel.  I could very much appreciate Petrushevskaya’s voice in these stories, especially in the openings (even if her voice has become a little Americanized in this translation).  They are far more stories of unease than actually scary, dreams and alternate realities conjured up in times of trauma are very much present. Some stories are reminiscent of those in the western tradition.  “The Cabbage Patch Mother” echoes “Thumbelina”.  The focus is often, as it is in this story, on the older woman, often a widow and whose lives teeter on the border of total despair.  Petrushevskaya lost her husband after a lengthy and difficult illness when he was just 26. The stand-out story in the collection is one of her fairy stories entitled “Marilena’s Secret” of a circus strong-woman who houses the souls of two ballerinas, bewitched by a spurned magician suitor, who burst forth from the fat lady’s body to dance a dance of both joy and desperation for two hours each night.  When Marilena meets a man who attempts to exploit her by making her famous by having her lose weight,  all hell breaks loose.  This to me feels like it is following the traditional pattern of the fairy tale –some of the stories are short vignettes of horror and despair and feel a little under-realised.


Petrushevskaya also works as a visual artist, a performer and singer and has become celebrated as a wearer of large hats!  In an interview with David Garza she claimed to be inspired by the success of Scottish singer Susan Boyle!   This undoubtedly unpredictable writer can only continue to grow an international following.  If you are looking for fairy tales of joy and with happy endings her work may not be for you.  I found reading her work more depressing than scary and perhaps the tail-end of what has been a difficult year may not be the time for depressing stories, so  I am happy to return this back to the library shelves.  Those of you who are looking to enrich your experience of modern Russian writers or who like their writing very dark may think otherwise.


There Once Lived A Woman was published as a Penguin Modern Classic in 2011.