Thursday, 25 February 2016

Review: The Natashas by Yelena Moskovich

The Natashas by Yelena MoskovichThe Natashas (21 January 2016) by Yelena Moskovich

Béatrice, a solitary young jazz singer from a genteel Parisian suburb, meets a mysterious woman named Polina. Polina visits her at night and whispers in her ear: 'There are people who leave their bodies and their bodies go on living without them. These people are named Natasha.' César, a lonely Mexican actor working in a call centre, receives the opportunity of a lifetime: a role as a serial killer on a French TV series. But as he prepares for the audition, he starts falling in love with the psychopath he is to play. Béatrice and César are drawn deeper into a city populated with visions and warnings, taunted by the chorusing of a group of young women, trapped in a windowless room, who all share the same name... Natasha.

This was a case of a book bearing little resemblance to the expectations I formed after reading the blurb - but then, it's fair to say The Natashas is nothing much like any other book. I made the mistake of taking that line about 'people who leave their bodies' literally, imagining the Natashas as a group of powerful, magical women, like something out of a myth. I was surprised to find they're actually a group of very young girls implied to be victims of a sex-trafficking operation; they're in that 'windowless room' because they are kept there by their captors. Incidental to the main body of the story, they only appear in occasional chapters, have no real arc, and don't get involved with the actual main characters, Béatrice and César. There's no better way to describe them than Kirsty Logan's observation, in her Guardian review of the book, that they function as a Greek chorus, introducing and commenting on the themes of the novel.

Yet this story is suffused with magical realism; it appears in the most unexpected of places, leading the reader, like the characters, down strange and winding paths. The story's most surreal moments - for example, César's conversation with a dead woman, who morphs into the ghost of someone else and signs off with 'I'll email you' - are its strongest. There's a cinematic quality to The Natashas that makes the visual comparisons its blurb draws - to the films of David Lynch and the photographs of Cindy Sherman - seem a better fit than the cited literary similarities (for the record, those are Angela Carter and Haruki Murakami, though Moskovich's writing reminded me most of Helen Oyeyemi).

Moskovich is a writer and producer of plays who was born in the Ukraine, educated in the USA and France, and now lives in Paris. I can't help but think her background has influenced her writing style, which is luminous, amusing and creative. Her similes and brief descriptions of people are odd but beautiful, attention-grabbing simply because they are so unusual and because they instantly conjure up an image. Here are just a few I made a note of while reading the book:

Béatrice thought about his question. It felt like a room full of empty shoes.

The woman's cheekbones sloped in a way that made Béatrice think that she had lost her watch or that she couldn't have children.

"Sorry, Pardohen," an American-looking girl said as she pulled her rolling suitcase after her. César got a glimpse of her face. She must have played the clarinet as a child and sided with her dad during the divorce.

As strange as it is, The Natashas also has a distinctive sense of humour, something which works as a welcome antidote to its darker moments. The scene in which César works himself into a frenzy of anxiety over turning down a terrible-sounding role, convincing himself it was actually the chance of a lifetime, is particularly funny. Of the two protagonists, he is by far the most successful, seeming both more real and more fanciful a character than Béatrice. He works in a call centre to make ends meet and stares at the phone in hope of good news from his agent, but there's also his split-personality identity as Manny; the surreal episode of his relationship with Stefan; the aforementioned conversation with a ghost.

This brings me to the downside of The Natashas' unreality: while César feels complete, some of the other characters are one-dimensional, and Béatrice is the prime example. Her shallowness is unfortunate considering that she's the ostensible heroine - but it wasn't lost on me that my reaction to Béatrice was designed to match the character's own frustration, as well as the flimsiness of her image in the eyes of others, as nothing more than a beautiful object, an empty vessel for their desires. In this way, The Natashas is a hall of mirrors.

The novel touches on themes of beauty, sexuality, self-actualisation and the escape to be found in becoming someone else, but it doesn't resolve any of these into a decisive ending or message, remaining inscrutable to the last. It works best when it glories in its oddness, and personally, I was relieved it didn't attempt to say something about objectification or the sex trade. The resolution of the novel - inasmuch as there is a resolution - is woozy and nonsensical. People split in two; Béatrice leaves a room while she's simultaneously up on stage, singing. The narrative, which is made up of numbered sections of various lengths all the way through, breaks down to mere sentences. It leaves an impression of glimpsed scenes, haunting fragments of dreams. The Natashas, though, stay in their windowless room.