Something Unbelievable: A Novel by Maria Kuznetsova

“And soon I will evaporate and you will have no story to remember.”

Time has been brutal for widowed Larissa, and now approaching her ninetieth year, living in Kiev she video conferences her granddaughter Natasha, who lives in America- which may as well be another planet altogether. Natasha’s emotional state is harried dealing with the exhaustion of caring for her newborn daughter, burdened by her husband Yuri’s friend Stas (who is currently crashing at their place) and juggling motherhood while auditioning for parts. The truth of it is, she is barely clinging to the end of her rope. The only saving grace is that Stas is great with children, her and Yuri’s baby in particular. When she asks Larissa if she will finally tell her the story of her own grandmother, the whole story about her life during World War Two, she is surprised her grandmother barely puts up a fight. Larissa wonders if her granddaughter really cares or is just using it as a distraction. Larissa admits to herself she has told it in bits and pieces, not all of it, it wears on her heart to remember. Tonya was a spoiled woman of wealth who married a banker, misfortune came to call with the Revolution in Ukraine, and the couple’s ‘fine apartment’ was seized by the Bolsheviks. It is everything that followed after, when the plan to flee their homeland with their children is altered after her husband’s death from typhus and Tonya is forced to make big decision on her own. This choice changes the course of her two sons lives. This is how Larissa’s father and uncle, as children, were sent to an orphanage. It is also how the weak, spoiled Tonya was able to maintain her lavish lifestyle.

Years later, Larissa’s mother and father meet at the Polytechnic Institute in Kiev, marry and have two daughters, Larissa and her younger, achingly beautiful sister Polya. Naturally their shallow grandmother adores Polina and lavishes attention on her, which doesn’t endear the sisters to one another. Life goes on until threats of Hitler invading the Soviet Union begin to take hold and the family must evacuate by train to the remote town of Lower Turinsk. Larissa’s family tale spirals into darkness and raw brutality. They are not alone on this uncomfortable cargo train, joined by their father’s brother and his family along with another couple and their sweet little girl. Soon, they will be “as beaten down as mushrooms stocked away deep in a forest.” Hunger, fear, jealousy, desire and death shadow their flight to safety. Larissa opens up about her love for two brothers, wildly different in personality and temperament. Remembering being driven to distraction by the crying jags of her silly sister and grandmother, of being wearied even of the terrors visited upon them, tough as nails Larissa lets the memories flow despite the ache. Everything she thinks she understands about her silly sister is challenged over the years, turning her bitterness into something inexplicable. She has many regrets and is visited by the spectre of death, outliving even her own daughter, Natasha’s mother.

Natasha is ashamed, at times, of her own weakness and struggles, particularly knowing her ancestors were made of sterner stuff. Just imagining everything they lived through makes her feel like a pitiful creature. Motherhood hasn’t come as naturally as she expected it to, Yuri is no longer interested in her as a woman it seems and the only roles she fits the mold for are those of proustite or spy. Her body hasn’t felt like her own since giving birth, and the memories she’s suppressed about her dead mother and her own hidden talent has her struggling with the past. She needs to feel like herself again, to have something that is her own. She needs to work, it is acting that fills her with purpose! Can’t a mother have a life too? Though the challenges Natasha faces are nothing near as severe as war, starvation, and the horrors her grandmother Larissa confronted, there are still parallels. The telling draws them closer and the struggles of what it means being a woman with passions, while mothering a child, is a bridge to understanding the choices we make. Even when there doesn’t seem to be a choice, beautiful new stories can be born from the ruins.

As Larissa passes down this inheritance, her story, it reverberates through time. Natasha takes the tale and reshapes it to fit present day, and share the meaning, the very truth that is the beating heart of Larissa’s life. It is about being vulnerable, selfishness, love, desire, war, death, how we judge others and ourselves and all the misunderstandings in between. It is where we go with what we have when we arrive in unexpected places. It is beautiful but make no mistake, Larissa’s past is hell, one that is witness to the ugliest of humanity and still she goes on in spite of a world that tries to break her, carrying her ghosts with her.

It is a harrowing tale of war and family. Gorgeously written, I can’t wait for her next book, this one left me breathless. I really enjoyed Maria’s previous novel Oksana, Behave but this one is a punch in the gut!

Publication Date: April 31, 2021

Random House Publishing

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