Gina Ochsner's debut novel proves every bit as magical and engaging as her short-story collection, People I Wanted to Be. In post-Soviet Perm, Siberia, her characters live in an apartment block without functioning sanitation, turn up for work despite never being paid. At least they can enjoy the toilets, "state of the art and of Finnish design".
For Jewish Olga and her son Yuri, his lover Zoya, tubby Tanya and her orthodox granny, and Muslim lady of the latrine, Azade, life isn't easy. If not ducking stones lobbed by feral children, they're paying out to Azade's would-be mafia son Vitek, or being buttonholed by her dead husband. His corpse may lie stinking and unburied in the snow but his ghost is irrepressibly alive, dishing out annoying advice.
"Americans of Russian Extraction for the Causes of Beautification" are offering money to a partner museum. Tanya's boss at the City Museum puts her on the case. But the museum is stuffed with fakes and the benefactors want to visit the staff's authentic Russian homes – homes as they imagine them, not the haunted toxic slum.
Oschner balances surreal and real with a light touch. Her characters have one foot in the world of fuel shortages and banking scams, the other in myths and folklore. As a translator, Olga renders horrific military bulletins harmless with euphemism but also reports sightings of werewolves in nightgowns. Tanya knocks up icons out of sweet wrappers and hairspray while dreaming of launching herself into a sea of cloud and colour as an Aeroflot hostess. In this Russia, one thing exists in abundance – stories.
Ochsner has a talent for striking images, and she's quirkily funny. Olga wants to clip the Chief Editor's comb-over and knit it "into something she could sell: a foot warmer, a tea cosy, a sweater". The cultural clash between Western "philanthropists" and needy Russians comes as no surprise. But there's resolution of a sort, and plenty of touching moments along the way.