Natasha and Other Stories is a collection of short stories about Mark Berman, a Russian Jewish child who immigrates with his family to Toronto at the age of six, around 1980. The stories provide an episodic looks at Mark’s life from childhood, very soon after arriving in Canada, through his twenties.
Bezmozgis’ style has a cinematic feel, putting together the portrait of a family spanning decades through a series of vignettes. The early stories in the collection depict a struggling but proud immigrant family, poor but thrilled to be gone from the anti-Semitic and bleak Soviet Union. Mrs. Berman will give up anything now that she can send her only son to Hebrew school, but Mark rebels when he’s made fun of by the kids on the block. A rabbi at the school gets him closer to Judaism, and in the later stories an adult Mark accompanies his grandfather to orthodox services to ensure a minyan. The title story, one of the better ones, shows Mark during his teenage years, spending his time getting high in suburban basements until a new arrival from Moscow shakes things up.
The stories are moving but very emotionally even. There are no saccharine stories of the young Mark, and neither is the death of his grandmother tear-jerking. The smoothness of continual disappointment and bittersweet moments feel more like real life, leaving me to wonder more than usual how much of the material is fictional (Bezmozgis, like Mark, left Russia for Toronto as a child). And while the immigrant destination in the stories is Toronto rather than the more-typical New York, and Mark’s experiences do have a certain Canadian flavor, they are not distinctively Canlit; the Russian Jewish element is much more prominent than the Canadian, despite the fact that Mark is thoroughly North American by his teenage years.