Starred reviews from Library Journal and Publishers Weekly
Award-winning author Irina Reyn explores what it means to be a mother in a world where you can't be with your child
Nadia's daily life in south Brooklyn is filled with small indignities: as a senior home attendant, she is always in danger of being fired; as a part-time nanny, she is forced to navigate the demands of her spoiled charge and the preschooler's insecure mother; and as an ethnic Russian, she finds herself feuding with western Ukrainian immigrants who think she is a traitor.
The war back home is always at the forefront of her reality. On television, Vladimir Putin speaks of the "reunification" of Crimea and Russia, the Ukrainian president makes unconvincing promises about a united Ukraine, while American politicians are divided over the fear of immigration. Nadia internalizes notions of "union" all around her, but the one reunion she has been waiting six years for - with her beloved daughter - is being eternally delayed by the Department of Homeland Security. When Nadia finds out that her daughter has lost access to the medicine she needs to survive, she takes matters into her own hands.
Mother Country is Irina Reyn's most emotionally complex, urgent novel yet. It is a story of mothers and daughters and, above all else, resilience.
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About the Author
IRINA REYN is the author of What Happened to Anna K: A Novel. She teaches fiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh and has reviewed books for L.A. Times, Publishers Weekly, San Francisco Chronicle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Hartford Courant, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, The Forward, and other publications. She was formerly the Books Editor for the online magazine, Killing the Buddha.
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Brooklyn, April 2014
In this Brooklyn neighborhood, Nadia was sure she was the only nanny from Ukraine. She preferred to think of herself as an observer, a temporary traveler, someone waiting for a new life to begin, rather than who she really was: a worker executing an invisible task within the neighborhood's complex ecosystem.
She generally liked the cheerful chaos of the park playground. Children were tooling about on sea legs, clutching green pouches of pureed nonsense. Older kids swished about on those dangerous scooters, babies giggled their way down slides. The sudden eruption of tears, the squeaky hum of the swings, the sound of women droning into their cell phones. By this point, Nadia was capable of pulling out a few phrases in English — Come here, No, Don't touch — but the rest congealed into a soupy blur behind her eyelids.
One eye trained on Sasha, Nadia was listening to a song her daughter emailed her by some blondinka pop singer with preternaturally tanned skin. On first glance, this Vera Brezhneva was yet another Ukrainian starlet who had magically transformed herself into one of "Russia's sexiest women." On the other hand, the song had a melancholy strain Nadia couldn't resist and the music video, three generations of blond girls, mothers, and grandmothers in white shifts embracing one another on breezy seashores, made her cry. The song was a mother addressing a beloved daughter, advising her to uphold inner strength during the most difficult times and promising that, no matter what, she would always be by her side — two ways she was currently failing her own daughter. "Don't fall apart, my dearest girl," Brezhneva breathed into Nadia's earbuds.
She was tugged into the song's plaintive chorus, the tide of hopelessness for her own family's situation, when she noticed Sasha scissor across the wooden slats of the jungle gym to yank a stuffed rabbit out of the hands of some crouching toddler.
"Sasha," she called out, shutting the music off.
Sasha had an identical rabbit at home. The same pewter-white, exorbitantly overpriced bunny with cloth of pink flowers sewn into the insides of his flapping ears. The other child had a look of shock on her face. Her encounter with Sasha was clearly a first in a series of life's arbitrary cruelties.
"Mine, mine!" Sasha cried, clawing at the little girl's enclosed fist.
Vera Brezhneva was rendered mute. "Enjoy, Mama," wrote Larisska when she sent her the link to the song. Nadia hoped this was the beginning of a thaw in their relationship, a sign that Larissa was softening to her. But this message was the last Nadia received from her, the final one from home before the fighting moved there. According to the news and friends who'd escaped to Kiev or Odessa, Rubizhne was devastated — no electricity, no water — just the sound of shrapnel and random shooting. Every time she heard fire truck sirens on Court Street or the metallic thrash of a shutting grate, she felt her heart burst free from her chest. That her daughter might be dead — shot by a sniper on her walk to work, say — is a thought she refused to form, but its outline, the inconceivable blackness of it, gripped her several times a day, sometimes several times an hour.
She caught up to Sasha — "Shto ty delaesh?" What are you doing? — and pried the rabbit out of Sasha's hands. The little girl and her nanny looked satisfied with the rabbit's homecoming — "Say thank you, Gwendolyn" — but Sasha burst open a livid wail that turned all eyes toward them. The girl scrunched up her face, zigzagged her mouth, and exploded.
This kind of thing happened often now. Nadia struggled to employ American methods that Sasha's mother clearly preferred while ignoring her own certainties on how to curb this behavior.
"Maybe, Nadia, if you just try to explain to her why you need her to act a certain way, if you ... how to say ... 'empower' ... her with choices. I think positive parenting works better than our old Soviet methods, don't you?" Regina had shyly pointed to a row of parenting books on her shelf. There were way too many of them, on every basic facet of raising a child — pooping, sleeping, walking, discipline. Of course, Nadia knew "positive parenting" was laughably worthless, basically handing children keys to the house and begging them to discipline you.
She decided to try the American method first. She plucked Sasha gently by the elbow, crouched at face level like Regina demonstrated for her, and tried to make eye contact with the girl. Most of those books recommended offering children two acceptable choices.
"Would you like to go home right now or in five minutes?" she tried. Everyone in the neighborhood was using this technique, and even if she didn't understand the words, she felt the tormented seesaw of those choices in the voices of adults all around her: Would you like an apple or a carrot? Juice or milk? Your pink jacket or green sweatshirt? Your kale pouch or your cheese bunnies? Often what she really wanted to cry was, Look at the choices facing the greater world! Would you prefer life or death?
Sasha was avoiding her, the hollering growing operatic and accusatory now, the nannies and mothers pretending they weren't stealing glances in their direction. If this were Larisska, she would have swatted her a few times on her behind, told her in no uncertain terms that this was unacceptable behavior. She would have marched her home and shoved her directly in the corner. Not that a public tantrum of this sort would have even occurred to Larisska, whose sense of rules and boundaries were inscribed into her from birth.
A terrible thought now assailed her: had Larisska sent her the song out of an outpouring of love or bitter irony? As in, "Look how you abandoned me here. Some mother you turned out to be." Or, "I've realized they gave you no choice but to leave me behind" and "I know you are doing what's best for me"? It wasn't clear, but Nadia chose to interpret the sharing of this song in the most positive light. Enjoy, Mama. It was the first unsolicited email she had received from Larisska in six years and she could not afford to doubt its sincerity. Not when they were so close to finally getting her here. Or at least she prayed they were close. For the past six years, since arriving in America, Nadia labored for a single goal: to bring her daughter here. Her sick daughter, her diabetic daughter, a daughter that, despite being in her twenties, still desperately needed her mother. For God's sake! She had been on a waiting list for seventeen years!
The letter to the state senator was in her purse right now, scrawled in careful Russian for Regina to translate. "Dear Mrs. Senator. I am writing you urgently with the hope that you will help speed up the immigration process of my daughter who lives in war-torn Ukraine. Her application to join me in America has been stalled for five and a half years now and the current situation has become very dangerous for her. I worry that with the escalation of the war, my diabetic daughter will no longer have access to insulin. ... Is there any way to please speed up her application, to grant her asylum ..." Sasha had pulled free and was running away from her, ducking under the swinging tire.
"Sashenka, Sashenka, idem ot syuda."
"No, no no!"
There was a reason no sane Ukrainian mother presented children with silly choices. Sasha had was digging in her heels, turning her body floppy and heavy, immovable. It was as if the very sound of Russian was irritating to her.
"You must stop speaking Russian," Sasha had commanded her the other day. Her chin was thrust out, a three-year-old landowner overseeing a stable of serfs. "I want you to speak only English."
"Your mama wants I speak Russian," Nadia tried to explain then, as if the girl could understand why her Russian-born mother wanted her to speak Russian while speaking it so badly herself. But who listened? As she headed toward her fourth year, Sasha's personality changed. As a two-year-old, she was charmed by the Russian language, by the simple messages behind classic Soviet cartoons, the books they read together about birds who withheld porridge from lazy animals, and songs about raffish bandits saving princesses from dull, bourgeois lives. Sasha was only too happy to immerse herself in Nadia's lap and count in Russian, her dimples deepening with each pronunciation — odin, dva, tri. But once she started part-time preschool, she wanted nothing more to do with the language. Insisting in her own way that everyone that mattered now spoke English.
Sasha moved away from the tire, wiped her nose with her sleeve. It seemed like she'd concluded with her protests, had made peace with the bunny's surrender. She returned to the jungle gym, her long eyelashes matted with tears. But then the little girl toddled by again, pushing the bunny in her pink baby stroller.
"Give. Back. Bunny!" Sasha launched into a renewed scream at the top of the slide, blocking any other child's access to its mouth. Nadia started to climb, tiptoeing her way past babies who, frankly, did not belong in this section of the playground.
"Sasha, Sashenka," she pleaded.
She was about to resort to good, old-fashioned Russian tactics when a mother holding a tall, straw-colored drink rose from her bench and slowly approached the slide. She was the type of woman Nadia saw more and more in Sasha's neighborhood, a gaunt chicness in monochromatic shirts. Her hair was slicked behind her diamond-studded ears. She wore leg-hugging pants that ended before the ankle and a pair of gold ballet flats with no arch support. The kind of clothes her Larisska used to fantasize about as a teenager, clipping pictures of them from Moscow magazines. These women didn't walk; they glided like porpoises.
With one fluid crook of the finger, the woman gestured for Sasha to go ahead and slide down, and to Nadia's amazement, the girl instantly obeyed. Then the lady whispered something in Sasha's ear, a speech so calm, and so directed, Nadia could barely see the mouth moving. How she envied this power language could wield. With each whisper, Nadia was being diminished, pushed out of sight. It was clear from the way Sasha looked back at her with newly wise eyes. Nadia was being swept aside by some higher sphere of native authority.
As if by magic, Sasha transformed back into a calm, self-possessed little girl. The other kids began circling down the slide, the parents and nannies became immersed in their former conversations. The girl with the bunny offered no more provocation. Sasha dutifully placed her hand in Nadia's palm.
"Tank you," Nadia said, but the woman barely acknowledged her. Her lips were pursed. To her, Nadia embodied nothing more than hundreds of ineffectual nannies at New York City playgrounds. What would be the point of telling her that Nadia had once served as head bookkeeper at an important gas pipe manufacturer? That she had her own family on the opposite side of the world? That her life was far rounder than the reflection in the woman's eyes?
"I want water," Sasha commanded. Nadia dove into a bag filled with Sasha necessities — a hat, sunscreen, bug spray, snacks, change of clothing, princess wand, safari stickers, "organic" fruit chews. She handed over the water bottle. The morning was turning toward noon, the babies bundled back in their strollers, toddlers chasing after dogs. Nadia noticed that the water spray was turned on — way too early in the season if you asked her — and she watched in horror as kids in clinging bathing suits and wet faces ran around in twenty-degree Celsius weather. Sasha drank her water with an imperious lilt to her throat, and when she handed it back and their eyes met, it was clear she too knew that Nadia could easily be erased. That even though the girl once wept inconsolably when Nadia left for the day, and had clung to Nadia's thighs in countless baby music classes and ran to her in the morning with joy-suffused cheeks, a wispy thread connected them that Sasha alone had the power to snap.
"Let's go," she said, sighing, and Sasha complied.
A quick backward glance told her the woman and her son had disappeared beyond the trees, the expensive shops, the clutch of chatting nannies from exotic, warm climates Nadia would never know.
* * *
Sasha's mother came home at six fifteen. Every day, Regina interpreted "six o'clock" in a novel way. She returned wearing the same gym clothes from the morning and dropped a heavy canvas bag to the floor. On days like these, it was easy to forget Regina was anything but American; what Russian woman would dare dress like this in public? What Russian woman would fail to notice that her often absent husband was probably sleeping around on her and maybe she should try a little harder with her appearance if she wanted to hold on to him? That Regina was born in Moscow and emigrated with her parents when she was seven seemed only to lend her an air of general melancholy, an uninformed grasp on Russian politics, and a smattering of grammar-school Russian words she often wrested out of their proper contexts. Immigration in childhood had been Regina's biggest trauma and Nadia sensed that this narrative shielded the woman from life's more pressing tragedies. But she was like family now, and family was to be scrutinized under a microscope with affectionate exasperation.
"Mommy, Mommy, you came back," Sasha cried, leaping into her mother's arms. Her happiness was so acute and genuinely surprised, you'd think the girl was abandoned during wartime, her mother returned from the front to fetch her at an orphanage.
"Of course Mama came back, Mama always comes back," Nadia said gaily, rising from their puppet show of animals. She gave Regina an affectionate kiss of greeting. Sasha ignored her, her usefulness concluded. She immediately started engaging her mother in English, presumably about the details of her day. She hoped the girl was leaving out the tantrum, the bunny, the haughty mother that had so swiftly altered the tenor of their relationship.
"Oh, wonderful." Regina nodded, clearly half listening, slipping out of her sneakers. "Sounds great, honey." She was always, in Nadia's view, distracted. She was a woman who never seemed to live in the present; she was like Chekhov's "Lady with a Lapdog" without the tormented lover or decrepit husband. Her American husband, Jake, had a youthful, athletic physique, and was suspiciously good-looking and rarely at home.
When Nadia once asked Regina what she did for a living, Regina replied that she was a "writer." Nadia assumed this meant journalist or secretary or even a professor of literature. But Regina insisted that she wrote romany, that she was in fact a novelist for a living despite having never published any actual novels. This "occupation" baffled Nadia. As far as she was concerned, a true novelist was Tolstoy or Pasternak or Bulgakov or even, if you had to grope around for one in the present, Valery Shevchuk. Tormented geniuses huddled over their desks, pens scratching across yellowing reams of paper, or great orators performing to rapt crowds, hosts of salons where big ideas circulated along with Georgian wine. Dignified graying women with sober cropped haircuts or, at least, alcoholics. Not this anxious woman in workout clothes and hot pink sneakers, whose haircut was way too long for someone her age. Not this woman, who at forty-two was about fifteen years too old to have small children, who whiled away the day at some rented cubicle just down the street staring into a computer screen, presumably waiting for divine inspiration to strike.
Regina sat down heavily on one of the kitchen stools, Sasha on her lap. Her stalk-green eyes settled a bit fearfully on Nadia's. She switched over to her usual schoolgirl-level Russian. "So what happened today?"
Nadia launched into the details of the girl's rigorous education, feeding, sleeping, and pooping schedule, highlighting Sasha's triumphs of good behavior while glossing over the incident at the playground. She had eaten pureed vegetable soup, almost half a head of broccoli, and one of Nadia's famous farmer cheesecakes studded with fresh blueberries. They had accomplished some simple addition with the help of cherry tomatoes, read two Russian books, memorized half a poem, and practiced writing "Sasha" in Russian and English.
"Nice job!" Regina said to Sasha, a bit of hollow American praise she overused. "Great, spasibo, Nadia. Sounds like a ..." She searched for an appropriate Russian word. "Good day."
Nadia had been looking forward to an entry, a natural pause in the conversation where she could take out the letter to the senator, but Regina was already being pulled toward a game on the rug and she was left standing by the door. The letter she had drafted lay at the top of her purse's opening, folded carefully between the pages of a book to avoid creasing.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mother Country"
Copyright © 2019 Irina Reyn.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. First-World Problems,
2. The Western Ones,
3. After the Mandarins,
4. Our Ukrainka,
5. To New Happiness,
6. Not Too Young to Know Nothing,
8. March of the Immortal Regiment,
9. The Center of the Forest,
10. Poppies for the Living,
11. Give My Baby the Heart,
Also by Irina Reyn,
About the Author,