The Secret History of Moscow is, judging by the wide range of reviews, the literary equivalent of an optical illusion:
You might read it and feel disconnected from the characters, as if you were living in a grey ice-slushy day with errands to run that mean wet boots and snow down your neck. Or you might read it and see the characters as part of a cultural mosaic, set against the background of gentle, fat flakes of snow falling out of a soft grey sky, the air crisp and fresh. The first time I read it, it was more of the first. The second, I was concentrating less on the primary characters and plot, and enjoying the tale-within-a-tale style, that gave tiny glimpses into Moscow and by extension, Russia.
“Yakov tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice. Nothing was ever easy, and he resented that his visit to a magical kingdom of fairytales was turning into a series of interviews. And corpse examinations.”
It begins with Galina in the bathroom, struggling with her feelings. Her sister takes over and before one can turn around three times, has turned into a jackdaw and left her newborn baby behind. Finding her sister, Masha, becomes Galina’s quest and raison d’être, bringing her first into contact with Fyodor, an alcoholic street artist, and then to Yakov, a divorced policeman settling uncomfortably into failure. When they witness a flock of crows disappear into a puddle, they know something mysterious is going on. Fyodor leads them to a subway station and they fall through an opening into the Underground.
“She always knew it would be a subway, and once again she lamented her lack of persistence. All this time she thought she was delusional, but in reality she wasn’t delusional enough to keep the hope alive.”
Comparisons–not the least of which is Neil himself–abound to American Gods, but I’ll be honest–this was far more palatable and charming. As we meet each entity in the narrative, we learn about a small piece of Russian history. Galina is a story of both mental illness and being a single female in modern Moscow. Fyodor indirectly illustrates the relationship between the Gypsies and townfolk. Yakov’s grandfather gives insight into the days of control by the state and suspicion of outsiders. Countess Elena, wife of a member of the Decembrists’ Revolt explains the no-win choices she faced. Sovin is a portrait of a plant scientist who fought in the wars and still ended up sent to a labor camp. Hershel was a Russian Jew in 1886 when persecution ramped up.
“Everyone liked to think that the worst was over, and that they were either important or inconspicuous enough to survive. Herschel smiled sadly at their self deception and felt embarrassed by his conceit—he was not so different from them after all.”
Much of the history can be said to be grim, but that’s what forgotten history means, isn’t it? New York City’s underground would no doubt have indentured servants, refugees starving in an overcrowded Irish tenement, women who were burned to death in factory fires with no exits. So perhaps these missing stories are indeed grim, and hard to connect to, but there’s something to be said for just bearing witness to the descriptions, endeavoring to understand the cultural moment, that makes it worthwhile. That it is wrapped up in solid writing with interspersed forgotten fairy tale characters makes it more interesting.
“This place is for those of us who don’t mind being small, who can live without being noticed. Those who are not ashamed to hide. But even we fade away eventually— you can’t be small forever without disappearing.”
The plot becomes almost secondary; though Galina has a single-minded focus on her sister, nearly no one else does, including Sedia. The Underworld is concerned about the incursion of the top world into their own and wants some reconnaissance done. For the plot-driven reader, this may prove unsatisfying. The format is almost–but not quite–the tale-within-tale story of The Night Garden, or Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. I finished the book quickly, but something about it called for a re-read. I thought the second time even better, a very satisfying, cathartic experience. A truly modern fairy tale, it may be one I have to add to my own library.
“He was still wide awake when the morning came – the light changed imperceptibly underground, with the glowtrees flaring up brightly, and the shimmer of golden dust that remained suspended in the musty air, as if millions of butterflies had shed the scales of their wings in midair.”