“If you like your novels with a pinch of moral outrage and societal interrogation…” – The Natashas by Yelena Moskovich

tnymThere’s more than a hint of magic realism about this otherworldy debut novel from Ukrainian playwright Yelena Moskovich. Opening in an unnamed room we meet several young women, each and every one of them named Natasha. And although we might be immediately introduced to the slight nuances that give these girls their own identity, what we are left with by the end of Chapter 1 is an unnerving feeling that there might actually be a few too many features that make these girls the same.

Fast forward to Chapter Two and we’re with Beatrice, a Marilyn Monroe lookalike with the voice of angel and a body that causes men to follow her in the street and women to treat her with envy and disdain. Beatrice is a woman whose identity is under threat by all around her. Seen only as a singer and a body to be gawped at, even her family have taken to calling her Miss Monroe. Even they seem unable to see her for herself.

And then to our next protagonist. Cesar is a lonely Mexican actor living in France and working in a call centre. Having fled his homeland, where he felt society (and his family) rejected him for his differences, he is now finding it equally difficult to establish a life for himself in his adopted country. That is until he receives the role of a lifetime in a new TV series, where he will play a psychopathic serial killer who’s not to be messed with.

The message of this novel is revealed by the ways in which both of these characters see their lives begin to close in on them. Struck by the lease of life and the recognition this new role gives him, Cesar begins to absorb parts of the character into his everyday life. And seeing herself become increasingly marginalised, Beatrice begins to physically disappear and disintegrate right before our very eyes. And all the time these strange Natashas wait in a room, their banal discussions hiding their sinister surroundings.

What we have here is a work of fiction that looks at the effects of objectification, the results of prejudice and stereotyping, and the worst consequences of a life spent reaching for some form of recognition, or even a snatch at a unique identity. Unfortunately, as is often the case with works of fiction that focus too hard on their central message, the story often gets lost in the search for meaning.

Any Cop?: It might depend what you look for in a novel. If you’re after a timely and admirable political message, you might find what you’re looking for in The Natashas. If you like your novels with a pinch of moral outrage and societal interrogation, you’ll find that too if you’re willing to look for it. If you want a coherent and always enjoyable narrative, you might be looking in the wrong place.

 

Fran Slater


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