At some point in the past decade, the word "Brooklyn" became cultural shorthand for a certain type of young, nouveau riche hipster. The borough has a history that goes back centuries, and a huge, notably diverse population, but to many Americans, it's now mainly associated with fixed-gear-bike-riding arrivistes sipping artisanal espresso drinks while they work on their painfully autobiographical novels about escaping suburbia.
Like any other geographical stereotype, it's wildly reductionist, and not just because a lot of hipsters have moved on to kombucha. There's obviously a lot more to Brooklyn than skinny jeans and indie rock bands, though you wouldn't necessarily know it from today's dominant cultural conversation. That's one of the reasons why Panic in a Suitcase, the excellent debut novel from New York-based author Yelena Akhtiorskaya, is such a breath of fresh air.
Panic in a Suitcase is set chiefly in Brighton Beach, the neighborhood known for decades as home to immigrants from the Soviet Union. The novel follows the members of the Nasmertov family, recently arrived from Odessa, Ukraine, as they adjust to life in a new country, 5,000 miles away from the city they called home for generations.
It's not as much of an adjustment as you might think, though. When the family is visited by Pasha, a troubled poet and his family's lone holdout (he can't bring himself to leave Odessa), he observes that Brighton Beach isn't too different from his hometown: "His fellow countrymen hadn't ventured bravely into a new land, they'd borrowed a tiny nook at the very rear of someone else's crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they'd gone through so many hurdles to escape."
The first part of Panic in a Suitcase centers on Pasha, whose relatives have brought him to visit in the hopes that he'll decide to join them in Brooklyn. Pasha is stubborn to a fault, terrified of any kind of confrontation, and even as a child exhibited a "catastrophic intolerance for the idiocy of others." His mother, Esther, and sister, Marina, treat him with a mix of affection and exasperation — they can't abide his seeming lack of interest in his career, his surroundings, and even his own son, whom he barely acknowledges.
Jumping forward 15 years, the second part of the novel focuses on Pasha's niece Frida, a precocious but aimless girl who doesn't initially seem interested at all in her homeland. (Asked, as a child, if she likes living in America, Frida is nonplused: "Here — as opposed to where? If there had been a somewhere else, Frida was currently engaged in an immense struggle to extract every last trace of it from her DNA.") Years later, she returns to Ukraine for her cousin's wedding and finds herself just as adrift as she was in the States.
Pasha and Frida don't have too much in common except for a tendency toward caprice and a nagging sense of anomie. But Panic in a Suitcase is less a novel about them than it is about the Nasmertov family as a whole — Akhtiorskaya treats the clan almost as a single character, functioning as a whole, even as its constituent parts are in a constant war with themselves.
And it works, because of Akhtiorskaya's patient, understated prose. She's a deeply perceptive writer, and her observations about the family's experience as immigrants to America are sharp and sometimes heartbreaking. On the family's habit of literally counting the days since moving to the States, she writes, "It'd seemed that if not counted, the days might either not pass or sneak by in clusters, two or more at a time. One thing a Soviet upbringing taught you was to pay attention."
And as sad as the novel is in parts, it's leavened by Akhtiorskaya's dry, brilliant sense of humor. She tackles both normal and comic moments with a straight face, which makes them even funnier — at one point, she gives the somewhat snobby Pasha credit for gamely making conversation with "a woman among whose wisdoms was that a Virgo and a Cancer should never mix except for in the bedroom and who saw logic in wearing a crucifix, a kabbalah bracelet, and a bindi simultaneously."
Panic in a Suitcase isn't just remarkable as a literary debut, but also as a uniquely American work of fiction. It's a testament to how diverse and unexpected the Brooklyn literary scene can be, but more than that, it's a testament to Akhtiorskaya's wit, generosity, and immense talent as a young American author.