The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2010), Alina Bronsky’s second novel, is entertaining contemporary fiction at its best. This is almost all down to the characters, although there is also a great multi-generational plot bubbling in the novel’s 262 pages. Rosa Achmetowna is a Tartar grandmother in Soviet Russia. In the opening pages, she does everything in her power–including indulging a belief in witchcraft–to abort her “ugly” 17-year old daughter Sulfia’s baby. (Rosa is constantly abrasive and unsupportive of Sulfia, whom she views as a dull-witted, lank-haired disappointment.) When all attempts fail and a little girl named Aminat is born, Rosa quickly forms a strong, obsessive attachment to the child. From the purely Tartar name she is christened with to the trajectory of her entire life, Rosa wrests control (and custody) of Aminat from her mother.
For the premise, the book is largely a dark comedy. There are dark one-liners from Rosa that verge on dangerous admissions from our first-person narrator. It would be difficult to quote many of these lines out of context, mainly because Rosa’s narration is so well integrated. The story of a grandmother who is enamored of her legs in black leather, hosts a plethora of casual racisms against people of all creeds and colors, and who is completely oblivious to the harm she puts others through is engrossing. As I say, it’s a wonder that all of this is pulled off so vibrantly that the reader finds Rosa both charming and despotic. She is practicality carried to its stubborn extreme, fixating on Aminat’s future with an obsessive glint in her eye that alarms shortly after the reader is given proof that, indeed, Sulfia might not always be the best caregiver. Rosa is loving in a manipulative way; imagine the maxim of “mother knows best” taken literally at all times and you have an idea of Rosa’s parenting style. It is a tale of enraged intimacy as the three females fight against each others inclinations all the way into Aminat’s adulthood.
From the unreliable narrator to the irreverent and lean writing style, Bronsky’s book was one of the rare pieces of contemporary fiction that I could immediately accept as strong on all counts. Although the ending and the several places where Bronsky jumps forward over years were sudden, the groundwork was all expertly enough prepared that the resolutions fit naturally into my idea of the characters. Their changes didn’t seem forced.
The translation by Tim Mohr was also expert, giving a clear sense of Rosa’s voice. The novel wouldn’t have worked for me if Rosa’s voice was even slightly off its near constant emotional center. (She tends to be detached from tragedy, unless it concerns Aminat.) The novel really is a joyful character study, and I imagine that anyone reading the book would wipe a quivering hand over the brow with relief, glad to have escaped an influence like Rosa.