A Door Behind a Door by Yelena Moskovich review – immigration and inner journeys | Fiction


Yelena Moskovich’s previous novel, Virtuoso, introduced us to a multinational cast of characters and focused on the trauma experienced by emigrants from the former Soviet bloc as they adjust to life in the west, often at the expense of their closest relationships. Virtuoso makes use of fractured timelines and episodic narrative techniques that are particularly effective in conveying the radical sense of disjuncture at the heart of both the migrant and the queer experience; Moskovich’s skill in using form as an active part of the narrative makes for a memorable reading experience. Her new novel, A Door Behind a Door, is equally successful in evoking alienation.

Here we meet Olga, a young woman transplanted from the former Soviet Union in the early 90s, now resident in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has met and fallen in love with a nurse named Angelina, a relationship that is finally providing her with some stability, especially in the way she is accepted by her girlfriend’s family. An unexpected late-night phone call throws this new security into doubt. The caller is Nikolai, a convicted murderer and former resident of the Soviet apartment block where Olga grew up. He insists on a meeting, saying only that the life of Olga’s brother Moshe may depend on it.

A Door Behind a Door makes use of a crime fiction framework though, as in Virtuoso, Moskovich is less interested in solving a mystery than in exploring a state of mind. The old lady Nikolai murdered was his upstairs neighbour, and as the novel’s action becomes ever more fragmented, we must work to piece together how the fates of the various characters – a cafe waitress, a female prisoner, two teenage girls cruising a shopping mall, a young man blinded in one eye, a penniless vagrant – are interconnected.

“To get to Hell,” Nikolai tells Olga, “they take you through America. There is a door behind a door” – and it is beyond this hidden entrance that the answers to our mounting questions lie concealed. Are we truly in hell, or merely made party to the memories of those already dead? As we discover more about Nikolai’s violent upbringing, Olga’s divided family and the shattering grief that destroyed the life of the murdered woman, we learn also how the experience of being an immigrant is as much about mental isolation and social ostracism as practical difficulty.

Nikolai’s surname, Neschastlivyi, means “unhappy”, and when Olga first catches sight of him in his “Soviet leather jacket”, she notes how he is “somehow bulky and malnourished, strung up in his posture like a wartime puppet”. The force of the past is annihilating, and it is a force Olga cannot ignore because she feels it too.The occasional use of Russian throughout the text is intrinsic to its power, hinting at an intimacy between lost souls, the impossibility of moving past the weight of earlier losses. The key literary reference is Mikhail Lermontov’s 1832 poem Parus (The Sail), written shortly before he dropped out of Moscow University to enlist in the army. Lermontov was a difficult, egotistical character who hid his creative brilliance in order to survive in the ultra-masculine society in which he moved. “What is life,” Olga says, paraphrasing his poem, “if you cannot go willingly into the heart of a storm?” We cannot help but draw comparison between the fate of her compatriot Nikolai and Lermontov’s death in a duel at the age of 26.

As with Virtuoso, this novel’s primary interest is in language and form. The author has stressed the importance of theatre and novels-in-verse such as Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin to her work, and it is in its performative, dramatic aspect that Olga and Nikolai’s story comes fully to life. The text on the page resembles a play script, and Moskovich’s plastic handling of language forces us to experience the novel’s tension and unease almost as a physical sensation. We don’t often see writing like this: genuinely subversive and innovative, an experiment in form that is actually discomfiting.

A Door Behind a Door by Yelena Moskovich is published by Influx (£8.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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