cover image The Big Green Tent

The Big Green Tent

Ludmila Ulitskaya, trans. from the Russian by Bela Shayevich. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (576p) ISBN 978-0-374-16667-0

The latest from Ulitskaya (The Funeral Party) is a massive, swirling epic, stretching across half a century and chronicling the lives and adventures of three artistic childhood friends: Ilya, the photographer; Mikha, the poet and literature hound; and Sanya, the musician. The trio, considered outcasts by their peers, grow up in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and find common ground as members of the “Lovers of Russian Letters” group, founded by their teacher, Victor Yulievich, a WWII veteran. As they age, they drift in and out of each others’ lives. Ilya turns radical and begins a secret bookbinding business, trafficking illegal texts into the U.S.S.R. Mikha, hoping to do good, finds himself in trouble with the law after he attempts to help exiled writers. And Sanya, after an injury to his hand, loses his drive to play piano. Ulitskaya weaves narratives both brief and prolonged into these stories, introducing, among others, Olga, Ilya’s second wife, and her two lifelong chums, Tamara—brilliant, destined for medical work—and Galya, who ends up wed to a man investigating Ilya’s unlawful activities. The author crafts an enthralling world, encapsulating many characters’ entire lives succinctly before slowly revealing biographical details in later chapters. The effect is mazelike, with the story jumping back and forth on various time lines. The prose is dense, but readers will come away wholly satisfied. (Apr.)