Friday, March 24, 2017

Kovalyova's Specimen

Specimen: stories / Irina Kovalyova
Toronto: Anansi, c2015.
295 p.

I was first drawn to this book by its gorgeous cover, which I had to highlight at the top of this post. Then I was intrigued by the content: short stories infused with science - biology mostly - all backed up by the author's cred:

Irina Kovalyova has a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in Microbiology from Queen’s University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She has previously interned for NASA and worked for two years as a forensic analyst in New York City. She was born in Russia and currently lives in Vancouver.
So these are some powerfully written stories, about scientists, with lots of focus on women, and diverse settings from Russia to Canada to North Korea and beyond. They are simply wonderful.

I enjoyed this whole collection a great deal. From the opening story to the last one (more a novella length) there was cleverness, complex characters and lots of intrigue. Each of them was different enough that you aren't reading the same story from different angles, as happens sometimes in debut story collections. There was so much imagination on display, and a strong feeling of a wide-ranging intelligence colouring each tale. I loved this book.

It's made up of nine stories, some brief & slightly humorous, like "Side Effects" in which a woman gets Botox with unexpected results, some more eerie and disturbing, like "Peptide P", in which scientists study children afflicted with a strange disease after eating hot dogs, and only one that I felt didn't quite fit, "The Big One", a concise tale of a woman & her daughter trapped in an underground parking garage after an earthquake. 

I loved the first story, "Mamochka", about an archivist in Minsk dealing with her daughter's marriage to a Chinese man in Vancouver. It's unexpected, thoughtful, and has a bit of an edge. I also loved the final novella, "The Blood Keeper", which I think was the highlight of the book. It's a longer story about a Russian student of plant genetics, a specialist in orchids, who ends up studying in North Korea where her father has been working for the government. He works on the preservation of Lenin's body & has been called to this fellow Communist country to help preserve the Supreme Leader's corpse. It is full of political intrigue, comparisons of Russian and North Korean communism, informers, love interests, secrets, and a long history of betrayals. It's amazing. It's a page turner but also a lovely meditation on being human and what we do in the name of dogma. As in all these stories, the facets of science and politics interact with family relationships. 

With its intelligent voice and worldly settings, I found this collection a breath of fresh air in Canlit. There are big ideas supported by excellent writing all throughout this book. Highly recommended. 

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