I started off December by reviewing a book by a Russian woman writer and I’m happy to be continuing that trend today. The author in question is Ludmilla Petrushevksaya, whose acquaintance I made earlier this year via her memoir “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel“; and the book is her latest release, “The New Adventures of Helen”, translated by Jane Bugaeva and published by Deep Vellum. Petushevskaya is probably best known for writing fable-like short fictions with quirky titles (“There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby”), and this collection again brings together short works – the book has the subtitle “Magical Tales” so it’s a fair guess that these stories might well be subverting the norm!

“Helen…” contains seven stories, and opens with the title work. Here, Helen of Troy is reborn in an unnamed seaside resort, ready for her beauty to wreak its usual havoc. However, a magician has prepared a trap, in the form of a magic mirror which renders anyone who looks into it invisible. Needless to say, this will have an unexpected effect on Helen who finds she can pass through the world without causing any disruption; which is all well and good until she finds herself attracted to a billionaire who can’t see her…

“Nose Girl” deals with notions of beauty; the title girl is beautiful, but has a nose which spoils this. However, will the perfect nose solve her problems and make the man she loves love her back? Next up is “The Prince with the Golden Hair”, which is probably the story closest to pure fairytale; the titular prince’s hair seems to be literally gold and everyone is after him and his kingdom. His adventures with his mother take in imprisonment by a travelling circus, where the erstwhile queen has to use all her wiles to stay safe and escape. “Queen Lir” is a hoot, with an elderly queen going AWOL and causing trouble wherever she goes. Although this is a very funny story (Lir getting a mohican haircut is hilarious!), there are serious undertones; Petrushevksaya is quite happy to slyly show how those with power and money can’t function on the most basic level when left to their own devices to manage things themselves.

Think about it: the royal quarters were always cleaned when the queen was away, so Lir remained quite clueless. She’d never laid eyes on a broom or dustpan in all her life. Apparently, the poor woman imagined that chambermaids swept with hats. (Come to think of it, many men and children wish it were that way in their homes; they don’t want to see any of the process, just the results. But, like it or not, they end up witnessing it all – the laundry, the ironing, the sweeping, the potato peeling, the pasta boiling – and are sometimes even obliged to help out…)

“Nettle and Raspberry” tellis the story of two sisters who are like chalk and cheese, and kind of live up to their names. Mostly they manage to get along, until love gets in the way and they become rivals. Sisters also feature (obvs) in “Two Sisters” where a sibling pair of old women stumble upon an ointment that makes them physically teenagers, but with their older minds. It will take all of their wisdom to negotiate a hostile world, hold onto their independence, make sure they get their pension payments and not get take into care as if they’re actually orphans.

Housing problems are something the sisters have to deal with (an issue which persists from the very dawn of Soviet times!), and this element is at the centre of the final entry, “The Story of an Artist”. Here, the title character struggles to keep possession of his apartment as well as producing his pictures. As the story develops, however, it seems that his paintings have a strange effect and as he comes to realise this, it seems he may be able to use his unusual and surreal talents to his advantage.

Petrushevkaya’s tales are wonderfully funny, quirky and entertaining, but she’s obviously a dab hand at using her fictions to take swipes at all manner of people and situations when she wants to! As you can see from the quote above, useless royals or men and children who don’t pull their weight are in for short shrift. The virtuous usually win out, which is a relief – well, these *are* magical tales after all – but there are harder truths embedded in the stories, and Petrushevskaya is clear-eyed about the realities of the world and the platitudes people trot out…

Mama died a day after Papa; she lay in bed all day and never woke up. At the funeral, people said they were lucky, that it happened only in fairy tales – a couple living a happy life then dying on the same day. But truth be told, these two supposedly happy people didn’t die at the same moment. One of them had seen death and understood that they were left alone. One of them had cried.

I was sold on Petrushevskaya’s economic yet effective prose after reading her memoir, and I’m pleased to say that her fictions are just as compelling. Whether subverting the norms, reversing fairy tale tropes or having sly digs at those she thinks deserve it, she’s produced an enjoyable and often thought-provoking collection. “The New Adventures of Helen” is my first experience of Petrushevskaya’s fictions but it definitely won’t be my last!!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!