This non­cha­lantly cool, mys­te­ri­ous saga of vi­o­lence, desire and fe­male friend­ship is hard to re­sist

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Shahidha Bari

The quick­est way to de­scribe Ye­lena Moskovich’s nov­els is to say that her books are like David Lynch films. This, at least, is the com­par­i­son re­view­ers re­sort to most fre­quently to con­vey her sur­real and lyri­cal style. It’s true that Moskovich writes sen­tences that lilt and slink, her plots de­vel­op­ing as a slow seduction and then cloud­ing like a smoke-filled room. Her lat­est novel, Vir­tu­oso, is an ar­rest­ingly self-as­sured fol­low-up to her 2016 de­but The Natashas . It is sim­i­larly con­cerned with sex­u­al­ity and vi­o­lence, told in an off-kil­ter id­iom, writ­ten by some­one with a dis­tinct taste for the weird.

And “weird” is, per­haps, the sim­plest way to put it. Moskovich wears her weird­ness with an in­dif­fer­ent dig­nity: Vir­tu­oso is non­cha­lantly cool and puz­zlingly askew. It’s also hard to re­sist. You may like it – as I did – and yet find your­self hard pressed to say ex­actly why. If you don’t care for it, you might find that its odd­ness stays with you nonethe­less, like the residue of a headache-in­duc­ing per­fume. Which­ever the case, Vir­tu­oso lingers.

The novel opens with a naked woman ly­ing life­less in a ho­tel room. This is Do­minique, we’ll learn later. She is French, an ac­tor, only mod­er­ately suc­cess­ful; she has been strug­gling with de­pres­sion. We don’t quite “meet” her in this open­ing se­quence, not only be­cause she’s dead, but be­cause Moskovich’s nar­ra­tive be­gins as a cam­era, dis­pas­sion­ately close up to the corpse.

When the lens pans out, we see Do­minique’s wife re­turn­ing to their suite. She sets down a bag of lemons, finds the body and tries to re­vive it. This is Aimée: younger, a med­i­cal sec­re­tary, in love with

Do­minique but in­ca­pable, it turns out, of sav­ing her.

Filmic, here, is the right word and yet still not enough. It’s a dra­matic scene but it’s Moskovich’s turn of phrase, of­ten un­ex­pected and po­et­i­cally cryptic, that makes us see it. The back of Do­minique’s knee is “a gasp”, the phone fallen from its cra­dle is “beep­ing hys­ter­ics”, while Aimée is “scav­eng­ing the body for breath”.

From here, the novel both flashes back to the by Ye­lena Moskovich, Ser­pent’s Tail, £14.99 The writer and artist was born in the for­mer USSR and em­i­grated to the US with her fam­ily in 1991 be­gin­ning of their re­la­tion­ship and pro­ceeds for­ward, grow­ing ever more sur­real. Aimée be­gins to sus­pect that she is be­ing haunted by a mys­te­ri­ous blue vapour. Other char­ac­ters and sub­plots emerge: an eerie on­line re­la­tion­ship be­tween an Amer­i­can teenager and an eastern Eu­ro­pean house­wife con­ducted via a les­bian chat room, and a friend­ship be­tween two Czech girls, Jana and Zorka, grow­ing up in the com­mu­nist Prague of the 1980s. Moskovich pulls this off with some skill, mov­ing con­fi­dently be­tween time­frames and nar­ra­tors.

Women – their friend­ships that can be for­ma­tive and erot­i­cally charged, their de­sires that can feel un­speak­able and in­tense – are clearly Moskovich’s fo­cus. She is es­pe­cially alert to how vis­ceral and dis­con­nected the ex­pe­ri­ence of a body can be. Im­ages of spit, sweat, urine, bruises and welts sur­face re­peat­edly. Jana’s armpits are damp when we first meet her; Zorka has a “streak of vi­o­let blue” un­der a swollen eye. The fe­male body is un­ruly, difficult to keep in check: desire is like that, too. When a teenage Aimée de­vel­ops a crush on a girl called Cé­line danc­ing in a les­bian night­club, she stares at her des­per­ately, filled with both vi­cious ha­tred and hope­less lust: “Cé­line, her eyes of green venom glow­ing in the spot­light, smoke crawl­ing out of her red mouth”.

So you’d be right to de­tect a hint of Lynch’s Blue Vel­vet and Mul­hol­land Drive, but there are other, equally po­tent in­flu­ences as well. There’s a touch of Elena Fer­rante in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Jana and Zorka, which Moskovich draws with ten­der­ness. Her de­pic­tion of sex has the fierce can­dour of an Anaïs Nin short story. The mood of stylish lan­guor car­ries the whiff of a Lana del Ray song.

In the end, though, Vir­tu­oso is en­tirely Moskovich, told in her idio­syn­cratic voice and in­formed by her strange sen­si­bil­ity. In its weaker mo­ments, that strange­ness can leave read­ers con­founded. A grotesque se­quence in which Jana is be­sieged by a crowd of child mug­gers is be­wil­der­ing, and the novel’s clos­ing para­graphs are per­plex­ing to the point that you won­der if you are miss­ing a page. At its best, though, Moskovich’s writ­ing is com­pul­sive and de­ter­mined in its ef­forts to get at desire, grief and love, things that are as sinewy and mys­te­ri­ous as the blue vapour that winds through the novel.

Shahidha Bari’s Dressed: The Se­cret Life of Clothes will be pub­lished later this year. To buy Vir­tu­oso for £13.19 go to guardian­book­ or call 0330 333 6846.


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