cover image White Walls: The Collected Stories

White Walls: The Collected Stories

Tat'iana Tolstaia, , trans. from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell and Antonina W. Bouis. . New York Review Books, $16.95 (404pp) ISBN 978-1-59017-197-4

Angels, imaginary friends, near-saints, shades and über-ogres fall to Earth among ordinary Russians and routinely succeed in whetting the imagination in this sparkling collection from Tolstoy's great-grandniece, a longtime New Yorker fiction contributor. It includes her two previous story collections, On the Golden Porch and Sleepwalker in a Fog , along with more recent work. The opening story, "Loves Me, Loves Me Not," presents the classic hateful nanny/spoiled kids dyad, setting it in a Leningrad full of wonders: some menacing, others joyous. In "Okkerivil River," the hapless Simeonov sets off to rescue (or so he imagines) chanteuse Vera Vasilevna, who has serenaded him from his Victrola for half a lifetime. When he does find her, she turns out to be exactly like the title river: vivid, repugnant and polluted beyond human redress. In "The Circle," Vassily Mikailovich (Tolstaya wryly leaves him without a surname) turns 60 and finds little behind or ahead of him, despite meeting the ghost of former lover Isolde. In "Yorick," a baleen whale, provider of bone for button-making and enabler of childhood fantasies, is elegized as Hamlet's nursemaid and human cairn to the narrator. Beautiful, imaginative and disconcerting, Tolstaya's Russia is a labyrinth of treasures and horrors. (Apr.)