Mitya is not good at math, as you can see. But he’s good at imagination. Mitya is utterly convinced that no one has ever looked at two halves long enough, or attentively enough.
Mitya has some stories for you.
Much like Mitya himself, this novel contains multitudes. Katya Kazbek, who often works as a translator, holds the door open for the curious reader with snippets of fairy tales. Sometimes these tales are her takes on mythology, and sometimes they are the mythology of being a teenager: stolen booze, punk shows in abandoned buildings, utterly frightening sexual situations, and putting on your mom’s makeup while she’s at work.
This novel called to me with a single image. I didn’t need to know anything else; I had to read it.
What can I say? If a cover hints at Ivan Bilibin, I have to pick it up. A sliver of his illustration, “Vasilisa the Beautiful“, peeks through the cover of Katya Kazbek’s magical debut novel- Little Foxes Took Up Matches. Bilibin’s illustrations introduced many Western readers to the fascinating and often terrifying world of Russian folklore- if you can see Baba Yaga in your mind right now, you are probably thinking of Bilibin’s interpretation. This book, while steeped deeply in the dark and bitter tea of Russian folklore, is not about Bilibin. Kazbek is here to offer you another gateway drug into Russia, her people, her stories, and her history.
We’re in Moscow in the 90s. The USSR has fallen, work is hard to come by, and corruption is plentiful. Adolescence is hard enough without having to share the living-room-couch-bedroom with your war-scarred and abusive cousin, but Mitya has an ace up his sleeve:
A needle, actually. A needle is somewhere in his body, if his eternally gossipy and fretful grandmother is to be trusted. Mitya swallowed a needle as a young child and now he is impervious to damage- much like Koschei of legend. Unlike Koschei, Mitya is not an uber-masculine antagonist of folklore. Mitya is a boy on the cusp of something greater- maybe even, he might be a girl? He finds comfort in the company, rituals, and adornments of womanhood.
This is where it’s about time to start wondering: How does an almost-thirteen-year-old boy live with a needle inside of his body? Shouldn’t he see a doctor? How did the needle get there in the first place? Well, this is a long story, which needs to be told from the beginning. It’s hard to say whether anything exciting would happen to Mitya at all, if not for the incident with the needle. Maybe Mitya would not be hiding lipsticks in a jar beneath his T-shirt now. So listen to the tale closely, and don’t interrupt. Whoever interrupts will have a snake crawl down their throat and will not live longer than three days from now.
Mitya inhabits a small world filled with larger questions than he is prepared to answer. His spirited grandmother, his quiet mother, his downtrodden father and Mitya share an apartment in an old part of the city. Their neighborhood is rife with drunks, corrupt cops, unattended children and barely legal marketplaces. Mitya is oblivious of the goings-on of the city until the city swallows up his only friend. Headstrong but oblivious Mitya marches headfirst into a mystery, meeting the people who will escort him out of his own childhood along the way.
Life after the fall of the USSR treats Mitya and his friends and neighbors with cold disregard. Mitya is young, but is in no way spared by senseless violence and gnawing poverty of his world. This book is filled with fantasy sequences, joyous blasts of humor, and tightly woven webs of friendship- but those moments sparkle most brightly after scenes of pure horror. Abuse, murder, violence- you name it, it’s a part of Mitya (and Moscow’s) day-to-day experience. This story is not for the weak of heart (or stomach); it nestles in close to the guts of gruesome folklore and nihilist history.
There is beauty to be found in the melting snow and McDonalds wrappers; Mitya and Kazbek know how to find it.
I received this ARC from the Tin House in exchange for a fair and honest review