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Verushka coverIn the lush and dangerous world of Jan Stinchcomb’s immersive novel Verushka, tea can turn to blood in your mouth, bears are fierce protectors of children, and maidens accidentally promise themselves to wood sprites. It’s also a world where new mothers fear the loss of their careers, teenage girls agonize over sleepover faux pas, and fathers grapple with long commutes into the city. Stinchcomb, whose previous works include The Kelping (2020), Find the Girl (2015), and The Blood Trail (2019), charts a path through the beautiful and terrifying territory of folk tales, while still shining a light on the complexities and preoccupations of modern life. Narratively and thematically ambitious, Verushka uses the lens of folk horror to deftly explore family legacies, intergenerational trauma, the vulnerability of childhood, and the anxieties of motherhood.

The novel opens in 2004, as a family that has been displaced by a devastating fire tries to adjust to their new home, an isolated house in the hills of Topanga, California. Caroline and Jack’s marriage is crumbling; Caroline is hiding an unwanted pregnancy and Jack is growing distant. Devon, their three-year-old daughter, lives in her own strange world, which has “witches and fairies and ghosts” that appear in “dark corners” (p. 13). She sleepwalks often, and sometimes has to chase her troublesome stuffed rabbit into the woods. The titular Verushka, a beguiling witch-like figure, is patiently trying to lure Devon to her. She cannily observes, “the trick is to get between mother and child” (p. 7). The pressure mounts, until a shocking confrontation changes their lives forever. From here, the novel cascades backwards through time. It takes the reader to a difficult moment in Jack’s childhood in 1981, then to Jack’s mother’s teenage years in 1968, before leaping forward again to 2013. This novel insists that to understand the dangers of the present, one must understand the past. To grasp the direness of Devon’s current predicament, readers must witness the trajectory set in motion decades earlier, when her grandmother first fell into Verushka’s orbit.

In less assured hands, the jumps through time might feel clunky or disruptive. But each transition feels perfectly timed, and the culture of each new decade and place provides a rich backdrop to the tense dramas unfolding. For example, Stinchcomb captures a dreamy snapshot of 1968 California, with children yearning for freedom and excitement. The teenaged Elaine, who will grow up to be Jack’s mother, displays an eager naiveté in her single-minded desire to become a “woman of experience,” presumably not wanting to miss out on the Sexual Revolution (p. 67). This makes her an easy target for the seductive Verushka. Similarly, Stinchcomb captures the relative lawlessness of childhood in the 1980s, as Jack and his brother spend a summer neglected by their busy father and resentful stepmother. As we move through these different time periods, the narrative thread is never lost, and it’s always clear how these atmospherically distinct sections are bound together.

The multi-perspective structure includes sections from Verushka’s point of view, illuminating her devastating backstory and the burdens she carries. She’s trapped by circumstance, stuck in the in-between: half-human and half-monster, of the old world and the new, both victim and villain. It’s no surprise that, in a recent interview in The Atticus Review, Stinchcomb confessed to always being “more interested in witches than princesses.” Verushka’s voice is lyrical and convincing. She marvels at how “there is something achingly beautiful about human innocence” and admires the sweetness of Devon’s peaceful mind, which she compares to “a meadow” (p. 141). Verushka’s story and point of view are perhaps the most enthralling in the novel, and the reader is given full access to Verushka’s rich interiority.

A central focus in the novel is motherhood and its many anxieties, and the impossible burden of keeping children safe in a world that is trying to snatch them away. Verushka muses that she finds mothers “dangerous … the animals that are most likely to kill” (p. 140). But despite their ferociousness, their tenderness, and the intensity of their love for their children, mothers in this novel are often overmatched by the heavy responsibility of parenthood. Caroline is consumed by her worries over Devon’s increasingly peculiar behavior, and still her daughter slips further and further into the trap Verushka has laid. Elaine fails to protect her children from supernatural temptation and the dangers posed by an abusive stepmother. Across all the varied time periods in the novel, the tension between a mother’s desire to protect her child and a child’s longing for independence is evident. Being a mother, the novel seems to suggest, is to constantly confront all the ways you might lose your child.

Childhood, too, is portrayed as complicated, fraught, and precarious. The novel shows a clear appreciation of children’s dreamy access to imagination and wonder. Children are attuned to certain frequencies the adults are missing. But they are also often led astray, with calamitous consequences. At one point, Devon realizes, too late, that she is dangerously close to becoming “that terrible yet familiar thing from all stories: a lost child” (p. 20). Devon’s willingness to explore with an open mind allows her to embrace the hidden magic that exists all around her, and yet it leaves her vulnerable and easy to exploit. Adolescence, when children are given more freedom without the full armor of adulthood, is a particularly perilous time. A fortune-teller warns Caroline, “Adolescence can be dangerous. All transitional phases are. It’s during these in-between stages of life that the door can be opened” (p. 113).

Although there are many delights contained in Verushka, the convergence of the modern world and the realm of fairy tales is perhaps the novel’s most enchanting element. Many of the novel’s conflicts arise from the concerns of the real world: spouses bicker over how to raise children; secrets drive a wedge in a marriage; a mother dislikes her teenage daughter’s new friends. But, often, the surreal logic of fairy tales takes over: maidens must be sacrificed; naming is a type of ownership; witches can invade dreams; eating food from another’s hand is a promise and an oath; when a debt is due, sticks and branches protrude from pale skin. Sometimes, in surprising and playful ways, these two modes of experiencing the world are perfectly married: social media makes teenagers’ psyches more vulnerable to a witch’s enticement; a small New Age shop in LA sells crystals to ward off old world evil; Verushka divines the whereabouts of her son from the dregs of a golden matcha latte in a trendy café.

This expansive novel is fully absorbing and marvelously atmospheric. If the book’s ambitious scope leads to occasional moments in which the narrative feels a little diffuse, it is also the book’s greatest triumph. Not many contemporary novels allow the reader so much room to breathe and look around. For readers who love folk tales and the pull of the supernatural, there is plenty of dark magic to enjoy. And Verushka has much to offer readers who want to dive deeply into characters’ interior lives and inner psychology. Like the novel’s alluring villain, this story will beckon you in further, urging you to let down your guard and give yourself over to its strange power.

[Editor’s Note: Publication of this review was made possible by a gift from Alexander Langer during our annual Kickstarter.]

Rebecca Turkewitz is a writer and high school teacher. Her debut collection of stories, Here in the Night, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2023. Her fiction and humor writing have appeared in The Normal Schoolthe Masters Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, the New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, and elsewhere.
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