Brigid Pasulka’s first novel, A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True, alternates two chronological settings by chapter. The “long, long time ago” follows Pigeon and Angelicia in Poland just before and during World War Two in third person omniscient, and the “present” is narrated in the first person perspective of ‘Baba Yaga’ (a poorly explained nickname with little apparent significance). It isn’t until a good way into the narrative that the relationship between the two chronologies becomes clear, and even later into the narrative that the relationship between Angelicia/Pigeon and Baba Yaga is explained. I suspect this mystery is meant to be intriguing; however, for this reader it was only frustrating and confusing.
Perhaps I missed the pay-off of the big reveal of how the two story lines relate because I was preoccupied with working out how the writing in the ‘long long time ago’ sections could be good, while the writing in the ‘presen’t could be terrible. What circumstances allow the same writer to simultaneously write well and write terribly? I’m going to hazard that it’s point of view that got in the way. The first person sections couldn’t sustain the kind of magical, fairytale quality aimed for (and achieved!) in the “once upon a time” of “long long ago,” and instead fell somewhere between dull and convoluted. Without the motivation to care about Baba Yaga I found myself plodding through her chapters, waiting to return to the intrigue and romance of the world war two narrative. And when the two chronologies eventually merge (as we know from the beginning they are bound to do, because it is that kind of story) the whole thing falls to pieces, as Pasulka can’t seem to find a unified point of view to allow the merged chronologies to read as anything other than stilted.
So… what did I find redeeming? I suppose there’s something to be said for a narrative that takes a longer view of history and introduces readers to the temporal scope of suffering experienced by ordinary villagers between the outbreak of World War Two and the fall of the iron curtain (do we capitalize Iron Curtain? Maybe it ought to be Iron. Curtain. Or Iron! Curtain!). Makes me think of the new history out – Bloodlands – that aims to capture just this kind of prolonged suffering. In any case, I admire the ambitious scope, even if I find the writing itself terribly uneven and without a decided thematic focus (rather a frustratingly contradictory thematic interest: is this a book about breaking from the past? about making choices? about confronting and learning from history? about accepting the immeasurable affect/effect the past has on individual decisions in the present? about the need to commit to one’s history or the need to disavow it?).
(Or are all of my disparaging remarks a consequence of my current scepticism about soul mates?)