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.
Yelena Moskovich was born in the former USSR and emigrated to Wisconsin with her family as Jewish refugees in 1991. She studied theatre at Emerson College, Boston, and in France at the Lecoq School of Physical Theatre and Université Paris 8. Her plays and performances have been produced in the US, Canada, France, and Sweden. Her first novel The Natashas was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2016. She has also written for New Statesman, Paris Review and 3:AM Magazine, and in French for Mixt(e) Magazine, won the 2017 Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize in 2017 and was a curator for the 2018 Los Angeles Queer Biennial. She lives in Paris.
Virtuoso was published by Serpent’s Tail on the 17th of January 2019. It’s available to purchase here in hardback and ebook formats. I’d like to thank both the publisher and Midas for sending me out a copy of this book in preparation to review for this tour.
Virtuoso is one of the handful of novels longlisted for this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize, organised by Swansea University. What is this prize I hear you ask? Well, The Dylan Thomas Prize is a leading prize for young writers presented annually. The prize, named in honour of the Welsh writer and poet Dylan Thomas, brings international prestige. It is open to published writers in the English language under the age of forty. The prize was originally awarded bi-annually, but became an annual award in 2010.
Virtuoso posses a narrative type that i’m not usually comfortable with – a fragmented to-ing and fro-ing, but the quality of penmanship, the execution of the deeply personal storyline captivated me completely, I found myself enveloped within the poetic prose of the pages, while intrigued by the lives of its characters. From the first chapter, I knew that I was going to fall head over heels for Yelena’s writing and my gosh she did not disappoint me, utterly floored! The way in which Yelena writes, flicking from past to present, narrative formats and characters are both delicate and whiplash worthy in terms of emotions – but I appreciated the emotive language used, it kept me hooked, entranced and wanting to delve deeper into the plotline. The basis of this novel is an unusual childhood friendship between two 7 year olds that build in a world that’s surrounded by forms of political uproar during the times of communism in Prague. The girls seem to be each other’s escape from the world they live, where they can mentally and emotionally forget about their harsh environment and the realities of life.
Zorka is unique in a strange misunderstood way, always making plans to leave this harsh life behind – but when she does leave without returning, Jana never quite forgets that friendship. Fast forward into adulthood, Jana is a translator in Paris and openly gay. She is surprised and charged when Zorka’s name reappears. During this time, we are also tied in with another, almost anonymous couple of characters, one a young American, the other an older Czech woman. Their relationship is different and told mainly in terms of chatroom logs. All four characters are entwined, not one of them knows who they really are – who their true identities are, this novel is a microscopic look into female relationships, identity and sexuality.
Virtuoso is a contemporary fiction, an intoxicating portrayal of life in Prague versus the change in times to the environment of suburbia in present day Wisconsin, where norms and value have become less regimented, more open-minded within society – different worlds mixed with different times. Yelena has created, an at times fractured depiction of the female identity, engrained with a sense of grief, one that travels to a root of sexuality and what it means, she’d created an intense dialogue that unravels preconceptions of female sensuality while echoing the behaviour of restraint and Chasity, related directly to the title of the book, Virtuoso, how to females break through this thickly built barrier? What do they lose when they do? A superbly written feminist tale, with characters who are made to hide their true selves, their true needs – from the mother will the ill husband that needs the emotional support, to the wife whose husband only sees her as his possession. Virtuoso invites the reader to explore all the definitions of loss through a variety of character narratives.
I’d highly recommend this theatrically innovated read that that challenges the traditionalistic basis of literature, one that challenges the identity of what it is to be female, as well as what it means to have lost. This intensely intriguing read echoes female empowerment and psyche. Yelena’s writing is risqué and bold, passionate and captivating, I urge you to read it.
Have you read Virtuoso? What did you think? Feel free to share your thoughts below! There’s tours going on this month for all 12 of those longlisted for The Dylan Thomas Prize, to keep up to date with all reviews make sure to check out the hashtag #SUDTP20
Until next time,