The Natashas by Yelena Moskovich

5th Jan 2016

The Natashas by Yelena Moskovich
‘There are people who leave their bodies and their bodies go on living without them. These people are named Natasha.' The Natashas is playwright Yelena Moskovich's dreamlike, but accessible, debut novel.

It starts in a boxy room full of women who, curiously, have the same name. They are linked somehow with Béatrice, a jazz singer nicknamed Miss Monroe, and César, a struggling actor auditioning for the role of his life.

Paris is shown as a place where anything can, and does, happen, and its streets are lovingly represented. César and Béatrice are no longer young, and their dreams of stardom are being replaced by their lonely realities.

The novel is an eerie read which touches on social themes like violence and sexual politics. It’s beautifully written. The prose moves along smoothly – it doesn’t feel overworked or overly descriptive. Moskovich muses on going missing, and how it is differently represented in various languages: ‘In Russian, you don’t have to go missing, it’s a single verb. The verb sits next to your name and you’re gone. In English you have to work for it. To go. Missing.’ The language is beautiful and contemplative because it feels aligned with the pace and the plot of the book.

One of the book’s most enjoyable aspects is its strangeness. At times it feels like a feminist Murakami novel, transported to the jazz clubs of Paris. One of the most eerie things is that it’s never quite clear when this is set – it could be now and it could be fifty years ago. It feels wispy, delicate as smoke. Moreover, it isn’t quite clear if it is magical realism or something more realistic. Are these mysterious Nathashas prisoners?

The way men look at and use women is examined in detail. Béatrice’s turbulent moods aren’t worth ‘even those breasts’, remarks a man she has a fling with. Her dad and her sister’s boyfriend are creepy in their behaviour around her. Is Beatrice allowed a life of her own? She is kept in an aviary-like room, to apparently preserve her voice.

One of the book's most enjoyable aspects is its strangeness. At times it feels like a feminist Murakami novel, transported to the jazz clubs of Paris. Béatrice muses on a relationship with a former boyfriend and concludes that ‘they had shared no private complicity at all. Together, they had merely participated in the myth that brilliant boys are noble beings.’

Her nickname, Miss Marilyn or Miss M, was given to her by one of her parents. When modelling a new dress for her family, the women are suspicious of the reactions of the men looking at her. The novel raises questions about the autonomy of women who are sexual objects, or objects of sexual attention. Would Marilyn Monroe also be a Natasha, stripped of her personhood? This is what’s implied.

César, on the other hand, is preparing for a role as a psychopath. Unfortunately, he starts to identify too much with the role of the vicious killer. Why does he feel the need to follow women around the streets?

He is gay, was treated badly by his violent brothers back home in South America and starts to channel their violence in preparation for his new role. It is interesting to see a character channel another for a dramatic role, as many actors have done in the past.

The Natashas is an enjoyable breath of fresh air. It’s lightly written, offers mysteries, doesn’t always reveal its secrets and the characters are well drawn. It deserves to be big.