There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby is the fabulously telling title of a collection of scary fairy tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, "Russia's best known living writer." (p.ix)
I'd never heard of her.
But then, the story goes, there's good reason for that: for much of her writing life, Petrushevskaya was ostracised because "her stories about the lives of Russian women were too dark, too direct, and too forbidding. Even her fairy tales seemed to have an edge of despair to them." (p.viii) The Soviet Union was having none of it.
More fool them.
In time, of course, the Soviet Union collapsed, and having scraped the decades away writing scripts for television, radio and the stage, all of a sudden Petrushevskaya's off-kilter fiction was embraced by Russian readers, such that "her seventieth birthday in 2008 was a government-sponsored celebration on a national scale." (p.ix) There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby is thus the first major translation of her work by an American publisher - so sayeth the great Wikipedia - and courtesy of Penguin Modern Classics, at long last we Brits have a chance to see for ourselves what all the fuss has been about.
Petrushevskaya is a sharp shock to the system indeed. A modern-day Grimm with none of the thematic whitewashing we've come expect from such stories as "There's Someone in the House," "The Black Coat" and "The New Robinson Crusoes: A Chronicle of the End of the Twentieth Century," Petrushevskaya is at her most disquieting when she sets her pointed sights on undermining the monotony of the everyday - as with the shut-in who becomes convinced there's an intruder in her flat in the first of those stories, and the family who are told the world will end if they leave their apartment in the second.
But this collection also serves to showcase another side of the Russian cause celebre: her scary fairy tales, as per that there subtitle. And in "The Father" and "The Cabbage-patch Mother," not to speak of several others, a glimmer of light cracks the dark, of love and hope and wonder amongst the bleakness of life as we know it.
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby is a lamentably short collection with which to begin what I can only hope becomes a long tradition of Petrushevskaya translations, each as precise as this, and yet it's long enough - I dare say a single story would be long enough - to bring to mind the likes of Tolstoy, Chekov, Beckett and Edgar Allen Poe. These are the sorts of names you throw around in company with Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, and There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby will be argument enough as to why for any reader with a hankering for an entrancing bedtime story - or twenty.
Just don't expect to sleep soundly for a long while thereafter.