Virtuoso by Yelena Moskovich
Published By Serpent’s Tail
Available from all good Bookshops and Online
What They Say
Zorka. She had eyebrows like her name.
1980s Prague. For Jana, childhood means ration queues and the smell of boiled potatoes on the grey winter air. But just before Jana’s seventh birthday, a new family moves in to their building: a bird-eyed mamka in a fox-fur coat, a stubble-faced papka – and a raven-haired girl named Zorka.
As the first cracks begin to appear in the communist regime, Zorka teaches Jana to look beyond their building, beyond Prague, beyond Czechoslovakia … and then, Zorka just disappears. Jana, now an interpreter in Paris for a Czech medical supply company, hasn’t seen her in a decade.
As Jana and Zorka’s stories slowly circle across the surreal fluctuations of the past and present, the streets of 1980s Prague, the suburbs of 1990s Wisconsin and the lesbian bars of present-day Paris, they lead inexorably to a mysterious door on the Rue de Prague …
Written with the dramatic tension of Euripidean tragedy and the dreamlike quality of a David Lynch film, Virtuoso is an audacious, mesmerising novel of love in the post-communist diaspora.
What I Say
From the beautiful cover, through to the very last page, Virtuoso is a lyrical and ethereal novel, unlike any I have read before. I initially thought it was simply about the relationship between two girls, Zorka and Jana. I was ready to learn about their childhood in Prague, and the subsequent paths their adult lives would take.
Virtuoso is just that, but so much more too. It is a startling commentary on life under the Communist Regime in Prague, a novel about what family is to us, how we search for our identities throughout our lives, and what it means to find our place in the world.
The novel starts with a young woman discovering the body of her wife in their hotel room, and immediately you are pulled into their world as you have no idea why this woman has passed away, or indeed who any of the characters are. It serves to draw you in immediately to the plot, and I was intrigued by it. As the novel moves forward, we are observers to the lives of Jana, Zorka and Aimee, all of whom have their stories to tell, and slowly their lives start to come together as we understand how inextricably linked their lives are.
Jana is a respectful and quiet young girl, who lives a fairly unremarkable existence with her mother and father, until one day Zorka and her family move in to her neighbourhood. From the first time they meet, Jana and Zorka have an immediate connection, a sense that their meeting was pre-destined, and Jana seems to be in awe of this fiery and outspoken girl who is absolutely aware of her self and the innate power she possesses. Zorka seems to be someone who refuses to be categorized or tamed, she is determined to live her life how she wants, and Jana can only stand by and watch. What happens from that point on, is that these two women are entwined forever in a relationship neither can adequately describe.
Right from the start of the novel, you are aware of the confines and restrictions placed on women during this time. They are defined by their roles of wife and mother, whilst living in a world of unspoken subservience and fear. You do not know who to trust, and what you can say, and as mothers sit with each other and swap secrets, the playground benches are apparently the safest place to do so. This is why Zorka is such a revelation to Jana and her family. Although initially Zorka seems to be this problematic child, who pushes everyone to their limits, we as readers learn the troubling relationship she has with her mother, and this defiance is a distraction technique so her mother won’t physically assault her.
Little by little, Zorka realises the only way she can survive her childhood is to escape from it, leaving Jana behind, bewildered and shattered at the loss of this young woman who she had come to depend on. What Yelena captures so perfectly is the intensity of friendship between girls, how they mean everything to you at the time, the shared secrets, the confessions and discussions about your hopes and dreams. To have that taken away from you without explanation can be devastating, and for Jana, she now has to work out how to carry on living alone in the very place that Zorka has deserted.
Aimee is living with her father after her parents divorce and is working for his company, however she seems to be unsettled and searching for someone to love. Her memories of her life with her father come out as a stream of remembrances, but this works as it gives the reader an insight into her thoughts and dreams. Eventually she meets and falls in love with Dominique, an actress. Initially their relationship seems idyllic and gives Aimee everything she thought she wanted, but little by little, she comes to realise that Dominque has issues of her own, and she will again fall into a role of caring and supporting someone at the expense of her own hopes and desires.
The novel as it progresses, seems more fractured in terms of the narrative, and is at times almost dreamlike in its telling. There are short, distinct chapters, a nightmarish scene outside a club where Jana is brutally attacked by strange and disturbing children and the ever present blue smoke that seeps into different chapters and permeates the narrative.
Virtuoso is also an exploration of self and sexuality, and the visble and real relationships between Jana and Zorka and Aimee and Dominique are offset by a relationship carried out in the confines of a chatroom. A thread of a conversation between an American teenager called Amy and an Eastern European housewife whose username is Dominxxika_N39 who is effectively kept prisoner by her husband are presented to us without context. Their conversations reveal that Amy is a pupil known to Zorka, but Amy is determined to travel to this woman and rescue her, which as casual observers on their chat is unsettling for the reader, and we are simply bystanders who are unable to intervene to save Amy from her fate.
As the novel draws to its conclusion, it becomes more surreal and is far from a straightforward narrative that many of us are comfortable with. Did I ‘get’ all of it – no. However, it is impossible to not be drawn into Jana, Zorka and Aimee’s lives, to see how they try to define themselves and their place in the world even when the world doesn’t seem to make sense to us.
In Virtuoso, Yelena has written a brave and uncompromising novel, which has interesting and defiant women at its core. It serves only to remind us that fiction can be whatever it wants to be, as long as readers are open to recognising that not everything can be explained neatly and completely.
Thank you very much to Midas PR and to the Dylan Thomas Prize for my copy of Virtuoso in exchange for an honest review.
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