The Book We're Talking About: ‘Panic In A Suitcase' By Yelena Akhtiorskaya

Panic In A Suitcase
by Yelena Akhtiorskaya
Riverhead Books, $27.95
Publishes July 31, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think:
In a blurb for Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s debut novel, author Aleksandar Hemon gushes that he would “read a take-out menu written by Yelena Akhtiorskaya,” and not without good reason: In an age of spare prose, Akhtiorskaya indulges in baroque description, involved simile, and the sort of lavish style that could give the most banal material interest.

Panic in a Suitcase
follows, or rather frenetically constructs, the Nasmertov family of Odessa and Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. When grandparents Robert and Esther emigrate to a reassuring colony of fellow Odessans in Brooklyn -- along with their daughter, Marina; her husband, Levik; and granddaughter Frida -- the intention was to send for their perpetually ailing poet son Pasha and his family at a later date. But the second emigration was indefinitely postponed, and instead the novel opens on a visit. In the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, Pasha has arrived for a month-long stay, and the family has prepared to use the opportunity to convince him to emigrate -- a plan Pasha placidly plans to resist. Though America unquestionably offers temptations -- a vibrant expat artist scene, women more alluring than his reviled wife, an opportunity to see his poems translated to English -- his inexplicable affinity for Odessa is difficult to surmount.

The novel then jumps forward to 2008, and the perspective shifts to Frida, now a medical student in Pennsylvania who sees Odessa and her birthright there as a potential escape route from more excruciating years of education. Though she, too, was born there, after a childhood in Brooklyn, her journey to Odessa bears the hallmarks of Pasha’s visit to America -- the hesitance, the curiosity, the fear, the desire. The unrelenting ambivalence of the Nasmertovs -- the yearning for a new land, followed by the sudden desire for the familiar -- is of a piece with their generally hectic demeanors, but also hints at the existentially unsettled state that can arise from emigration. Sometimes, just going home is not so simple.

Akhtiorskaya has a gift for vivid, unexpected detail and evocative metaphor, though her enthusiasm for such flourishes can lead to unnecessary oddly-phrased or simply bizarre touches: “Men on corners demonstrated the hot dog as a two-bite affair”; “Her eyes were like neglected goldfish bowls, the water unchanged for months.” Sometimes this fixation on details results in necessary threads of plot being blotted out or overshadowed, and so the final product occasionally reads more like a cluster of strong, distinct visual and sensory impressions than a coherent narrative.

Nonetheless, the comically shambolic world of the Nasmertovs offers more than enough flavor to make the book a delight. Peopled with smartly drawn, humorously caricatured characters and packed with clever, evocative description, Panic in a Suitcase is a charming, chaotic read.

What other reviewers think:
Kirkus: "Akhtiorskaya’s sideways humor allows rays of genuine emotion to filter through the social and domestic satire."

Publishers Weekly: "The prose is finely crafted, but this is not a tale of relatable people. Instead, Akhtiorskaya excels at humorous, slightly overstated character sketches, making each person uniquely absurd."

Who wrote it?
Panic in a Suitcase is Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s first novel. She has an MFA from Columbia University and has received a Posen Fellowship in Fiction. Her writing has been published in n+1, Electric Literature, and more.

Who will read it?
Readers who enjoy narratives about immigration and the collision of cultures, as well as those who enjoy highly descriptive prose.

Opening lines:
“The morning was ideal, a crime to waste it cooped up. They were off to the shore. That means you, too, Pasha--you need some color, a dunk would do you good, so would a stroll. Aren’t you curious to see Coney Island? Freud had been. Don’t deliberate till it’s too late. Strokes are known to make surprise appearances in the family. Who knows how long…? Now, get up off that couch!”

Notable passage:
“An odor of derangement hung about Brighton, wafting extra from under the train tracks. There were too many instances of household appliances used as hats, baby carriages with things other than babies in them, heated conversations with a sole visible party.”

Rating, out of ten:
7. Though sometimes overwritten, Panic in a Suitcase blends hilarity with just the right amount of pathos for a read that’s both insightful and engaging.