As a rule, I am totally rubbish at taking part in, and sticking to, any kind of reading challenge. Whether it’s someone’s reading week, or a readalong, or just making my own plan and following it through, I pretty much always fail. So when I approached a recent Twitter readalong – which I really *did* want to take part in! – I had little confidence I would see it through. However, I’m pleased to report that not only did I stick to the schedule, but also that this turned out to be the perfect way to read the book in question! 😀

The book is “Like Water and Other Stories” by Olga Zilberbourg, her English-language debut published in 2019 by wtaw press. Zilberbourg was born in what was then Leningrad, USSR, but grew up in what reverted to St. Petersburg in 1991 and now lives in California. As well as publishing three Russian-language collections of stories, she serves as a consulting editor at Narrative Magazine and as a co-facilitator of the San Francisco Writers Workshop. She also runs the excellent Punctured Lines blog with Yelena Furman, taking a feminist look at literature from the former Soviet Union. For clarity’s sake, I should say that Olga was kind enough to send me a copy of her book, for which I am *very* grateful. I sensed that it would be my sort of book, and it certainly is, and so to have a copy directly from the author is a real treat – thank you, Olga. The Twitter readalong was organised under the hashtag #Zilberbourg2021 by Reem @PaperPills and the reading schedule was put together by Kim @joiedevivre9 – thank you both, ladies, for the motivation!

“Like Water” collects together a series of short works, varying in length from half a page to several pages long. In these, Zilberbourg explores a real range of tales and right from the start the stories are stunning. The collection opens with Rubicon which slips through time and place, as well as introducing an element which will recur – the mixtape and its importance in the courtship rituals of the young! Evasion takes a quirky look at ageing, equating it with growing in size. Helen More’s Suicide, a longer piece, explores why we live and choose to die; and Dandelion is a wonderful story, and one which puts you inside the mind of a writer, sending their work off into the wider world.

The forty-year-olds required higher ceilings, taller furniture. An occasional forty-year-old, nostalgic for her childhood, tried dating a twenty-something, but the romance was physically difficult to sustain. She had to crouch down to him, and he could not, on his own, open the door to her fridge and take out the pot of beans.

Other stories, like My Sister’s Game, explore the pains of coming of age; Therapy. Or Something. is a quite devastating look at a smothering parent (and as I have a complex relationship with my mother, it certainly made me squirm). Dr Sveta was a particularly powerful story, drawing on Russia’s Soviet past, and revealing just how little choice women had under that regime. Many of Olga’s stories feature women torn between two cultures, fighting the expectations of society (and their own family); and the pressures this puts on the characters were tellingly revealed. Whether set in Russia or America, all of these women narrators are negotiating a complex path through life, and their struggles are very relatable (even when the stories twist off into more surreal territory).

“Like Water” turned out to be such an excellent read, and I’m so glad Book Twitter came up with this readalong! What was particularly brilliant about reading the stories in this way, a set amount of pages each day, was that it allowed time to savour the writing and let the tales settle in the mind. “Like Water” is a particularly varied collection of stories, and even had I read it all in one go I think there would have been no danger of them running together. However, the scheduled gap allowed even more time to think back and appreciate the brilliant storytelling. And as well as everything else, having this very doable schedule to work to allowed me to read a non-fiction work alongside “Like Water” (more of which in a later post!) and so that was a double result!!

As you might have guessed, I loved this collection; Olga’s stories are funny, human, clever, sad, as well as being very thoughtful and thought-provoking. I mean it as a compliment when I say that at times I picked up hints of Tolstoya, another author straddling two continents; although Zilberbourg’s voice is completely individual and her style very much her own. Whether writing about childhood in Russia, struggling as a working woman in America, dealing with unexpected anti-Semitism, or discovering differences in the immigrant experience, Olga takes a clear and vibrant look at things, and it’s always terrific reading. I know I’m not alone in my love for this collection, and I highly recommend it!