Author Charts Genetic Sway over Young Immigrant’s Journey
A Contrary review by Shevi Berlinger

	After surviving childhood in Asbestos 2, Siberia, Sasha Goldberg travels to Phoenix, Chicago, and Brooklyn to quiet her unsettled heart. Along the way, her path twists around fellow travelers whom it is hard to imagine would gel together without Sasha in common. These characters all reside in Petropolis, the debut novel by Anya Ulinich, a former painter whose lovely sense of literary texture draws from her childhood roots in Moscow.
        Sasha Goldberg – she is often called by her full name, as if she needs this extra tonic of strength – is hardy, independent and private. Her conspicuous physical presence puts pressure on her natural tendency toward introversion, but Ulinich pinpoints Sasha’s latent emotions as precisely as a scientist. Along the way, Sasha spends time wondering about the unspoken gifts and secrets of her genes, her history, and even her own progeny. 
	In Sasha’s case, half her genes come from a librarian, her overbearing mother, whose sense of order casts its shadow and light over the whole novel. With Sasha’s father gone for large swaths of time, the mother-daughter relationship is in the spotlight as Sasha explores the possibility of her own motherhood. The prominence of books and of righting disorder are central issues in the novel, even in passages farthest from Sasha’s roots – when she ends up as a mail-order bride of florid, quesadilla-loving Neal, or when she floats miserably through a fancy suburban Chicago household as a live-in maid, finally befriending the family’s geeky and cynical son. 
While Petropolis starts slowly, it begins to fly in the second half, especially when Sasha reaches her 20s. (Is that how the adolescent years are, though, stretching out like a concave mirror, everything in obscenely microscopic view?) Ulinich writes in gorgeous phrases, such as when Sasha reads a stack of long-lost love letters, and thinks that “if nature could narrate itself it would produce something similar.” The novel ends with a surreal, vivid image that ingeniously caps the novel and joins the disparate pieces of Sasha’s past. It can be looked at again and again with horror and delight. 
Ulinich illustrates the novel’s sections with whimsical, plucky drawings, each introducing the contents to come. One wonders how much of the novel was taken from her own experiences immigrating to the United States at age seventeen. The novel offers a precious view of some of the universal challenges of geographical shifts; at one pit stop on her journey, Sasha notices that “the whole experience was like bumping into your best friend at the bottom of the ocean.” Lift the dust jacket off a hardcover copy of Petropolis and you will find a red cover labeled with only AU, the author’s initials. Claiming ownership of one’s story, seeking one’s elusive title: isn’t writing sometimes like that?

Shevi Berlinger was managing editor of Two Lines: World Writing in Translation. She lives in New York and is at work on a book of poetry.

 More Reviews...>Reviews.htmlshapeimage_1_link_0

© 2003-2007  |  all rights reserved
xml feed  |  Contrary ® is a registered trademark of Contrary Magazine  |  write to usfeed://
by Anya Ulinich
2007,  Viking
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008

On the Contrary

Archives | Search

Contributor Biographies

Submission Guidelines

Receive Alerts


Support a Writer


Return to Front Page