This nonchalantly cool, mysterious saga of violence, desire and female friendship is hard to resist
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 guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.