This is what going mad feels like.
Imagine: your heavily pregnant sister vanishes from the bathroom one evening. A locked bathroom, in the eighth story apartment you share with your mother. Leaving her baby—squalling but healthy—behind, apparently without having paused to birth it. And ... Wait, is there something familiar about the look in that jackdaw's eye?
Galina, the young Russian woman to whom all the above happens within the first chapter of Ekaterina Sedia's debut novel, knows a thing or two about madness, and sanity:
Galina remembered that day, when she had returned home, still swollen from sulfazine-and-neuroleptics cocktails they plied her with. The injection sites still hurt, and she resolved then to never do anything that would cause her to go her back. She never told anyone about the things that flickered in the edges of her vision—strange creatures, awful sights. The mental institution was an extension of her mother, punishing her every time she disappointed. She chose her mother's dull torment over the acute pain of needles and the semiconscious nightmare of neuroleptics. She still felt guilty about her lies. (p. 9)
The contrast between Galina's forced "disappearance"—cloaked in deceit and complicity—and Masha's involuntary, hysterically bewailed one could not be more pronounced. In the aftermath, Galina is wearily unsurprised to notice that "her mother was angry that it was Masha who disappeared—the youngest one, the normal one" (p. 13). Galina must deal with her grief, and attempt to reverse what has happened, on her own; her mother, she knows, wants nothing to do with her. This sense of heartbroken resignation dogs Galina throughout the novel, and leads her to make an arresting decision at its ending.
The above passage sets up two currents that shape the novel. The first is that the reader is presented with a classic fantasy protagonist in this modern-day urban setting: the outsider, the Cassandra, always correct but never believed, who resents her powers for the way they have marginalised her, even if—as the last sentence makes clear—she never doubts their reality. (Whether we do is, of course, another matter; but the genre in which the novel is published steers us in the direction of belief.) The second current is a broader motif—of disappearance, of forgetting, of denial, all enforced or encouraged or allowed under silence—and it flows through both story and setting. The vanishing of Masha turns out to be only one of a rash of similar, equally unexplained cases throughout the city of Moscow. Galina teams up with Yakov, a lonely militiaman-cum-detective, and Fyodor, a street artist who paints and repaints for uncaring and unaware tourists the face of a gypsy girl he once knew. Together, they embark on a rather maverick investigation that takes them down into the underground—a magical otherworld of a particularly grim variety:
Galina thought for a bit. Her childhood imaginings of unicorns and fairies seemed far-fetched—why would there be unicorns and fairies under this dark city that towered over them, surrounded them from all sides with its suffocating stone and metal? What good could hide under it? (p. 55)
The underground exists on the edges of things. It lies in the cracks that people fall into, or seek refuge in, and never return from—whether those cracks be in the icy surfaces of frozen rivers, in the records and directives of government bureaucracy, or in the grimy corners of the city (another sort of underworld) where the destitute huddle and the desperate are exploited by criminals. It is half-glimpsed:
"Don't look up," Fyodor said. "Don't look at the real thing. Watch the reflection—this is what's important."
The door swung open and blackened with a multitude of starlings—they came screeching from the door in the puddle into the night air above their heads, with no transition and no trace of water on their glistening feathers. (p. 51)
This underground proves to be the repository for all Moscow's buried history, for all its forgotten and disappeared, both human and mythical—things that Moscow has accumulated a great deal of over the years. Random disappearances have a resonance all their own in the context of twentieth-century Russian history, of course; Galina's stint at a mental institution echoes the English literary trope of silenced Victorian women, but it also stands for Soviet methods of removing "difficult" individuals from the public eye, and a number of the people that Galina, Yakov, and Fyodor meet in the underground ended up there because of Soviet repression. Yet the NKVD's victims are only one set of those forgotten by—or wiped from—history, and Sedia sets out to engage with the others, too. The novel is structured so that most chapters tell us the story of a representative character, giving voice to the voiceless—and exploring the many traumas of Moscow's past—through their conversations with the three travellers. We meet a gulag escapee, a gypsy driven to prostitution by poverty and displacement, a Jewish pogrom survivor from the 1880s, a writer arrested for speaking out against oppression, and a woman whose Decembrist husband was exiled to Siberia. We also encounter Pagan spirits who were forced out by Christianisation, characters from children's stories that have fallen out of favour or fashion, and a host of religious and mythological figures no longer celebrated. There are people from every age that has seen Moscow devastated: the time of the Golden Horde, of Ivan IV (the Terrible), of Napoleon, all the wars and tyrants that have befallen the city and its people.
If the underground is grim, Sedia paints an equally unwelcoming—if not entirely condemnatory—picture of the decaying city above it. Here is Fyodor reflecting on seventeenth-century ruler Peter the Great's decision to build a new Russian capital, St Petersburg, abandoning Moscow:
It wasn't about control of the sea, Fyodor thought as the virgin snow crunched and gave under his freezing feet, toes curled inside his oversized army boots. It wasn't about Peter's training in Europe or infatuation with the West. It was all about escape—escape from this blasted city with its terrible history buried deep underground, with its oppressive Byzantine past. Peter could not bear this place, suspended between worlds, and he chose a new alliance and built a new city, European and clean, where the streets ran in a grid instead of meandering drunkenly up and down the seven hills of Moscow. So Peter fled, Fyodor thought, fled in self-preservation, into the cold and sterile embrace of the Baltic. Who could blame him? (pp. 228-9)
With its harsh climate and bloody past, Moscow is an environment that is at best unforgiving of weakness, and at worse can be utterly inimical; the choice of "drunkenly" is a nod to both the way Muscovites are conventionally portrayed as dealing with their surroundings, and to Peter's own famously capacious taste for alcohol, something he hardly left behind in his move to the Baltic. The characters all feel this, and suffer from Moscow's defensive and apparently endemic hostility to outsiders. Yakov, for example, cannot shake the stigma attached to his provincial origins, or the restrictions that rule where he, as a registered out-of-towner ("Limitchik"), may live in the city. His appearance, we are told, "screamed 'Russian peasant' at the world" and the "world acted indignant in response and shoved him away. Moscow was especially violent in regards of shoving" (p. 22). The sad life of Oksana the gypsy, meanwhile, is a catalogue of exclusion and systemic persecution based on heavily ingrained stereotypes of who and what her people are.
There is a strong sense that Sedia's Moscow has created its own underground just as much as it has been imposed by external repression, that the long-beleaguered Muscovites have protected and fostered it though their willingness to forget and turn aside rather than engage. Inured to, and exhausted by, the horrors of their collective past, they have become complicit in the burying of their history, in the loss of who they are. "Their saviors hid underground, exiled and forgotten," Fyodor realises at one point, thinking of the mythological figures who used to protect the city but have now been abandoned. "Moscow was not kind to those who cared about it" (p. 98).
Sedia uses her mythology sparingly and evocatively—the dance of the Rusalki witnessed by Decembrist widow Elena is especially beautiful—and often lightheartedly. I particularly enjoyed the irascible comments of Father Frost—one of the aforementioned hidden saviours—such as, "'Clueless folk on the surface, gods forgive me. [...I]f it weren't for me you'd all be speaking French now. Assholes.' [...] 'Have you dum-dums ever noticed that the moment there's a foreign invasion, you get a record cold winter?'" (p. 97). Occasionally, though, Sedia gets carried away with the detail, and there are a few laboured dialogue exchanges where her characters explain the stories and their contexts. This sort of thing, about an enormous cat named Bayun, is undeniably interesting, but also unnecessary and distracting—and seems an odd narrative choice when the cat in question is standing in front of our heroes, looking threatening:
"...he is supposed to live in Thrice-Ninth kingdom."
"He's also related to Scandinavian myth," Koschey said. "His children are the two cats that pull Freya's chariot; at least, according to some sources."
"I haven't realized Russian fairytales were related to other religions," Yakov said.
Koschey laughed. "You're kidding, right? Most of Russia's pagan gods were borrowed from elsewhere—Scandinavians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Egyptians ... you name it. There's very little original folklore here."
Galina thought it strange that mythological creatures were capable of discussing their own origins. (p. 203)
The prose is, on the whole, attractively and almost hypnotically stripped down; but it, too, can be clumsy in places, prone to over-explanation, inelegant transitions, and laboured description:
She spotted the three storied brownstone, and prayed that the tenants hadn't installed the security lock at the entrance.
They hadn't, and she ran up the stairs, guilty and quiet on her feet. She hoped that none of the tenants would emerge from their comfortable, expensive apartments with steel security doors and question her right there. (p. 17)
Furthermore, the plot that holds all these rich ingredients together—the search for the missing people, the discovery of how certain occult dabbling within Moscow's organised crime scene is involved, and the motley quest to defeat said criminals and free the (recent) disappeared—never really holds its own alongside the weighty, difficult history under consideration. This story, which should be drawing us through the tales from the underground, feels perfunctory and is often lost in the middle chapters of the book with their character-based capsule histories; when it resumes, the playing out of the plot seems to rush to compensate for the earlier dawdling. The stories of Galina, Yakov, and Fyodor help counterbalance this, but not enough. However impressive the multitude of individual narratives are—and however satisfying and discomforting the ending is—there are times when A Secret History of Moscow reads more like a collection of fascinating and moving vignettes than a complete novel. Still, Sedia goes close to the bone, and does so with a skilled and steady touch.
Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, U.K., where she is using her PhD funding to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She has previously written for SFX and Emerald City, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.