Moth­er Doll

  • Review
By – March 4, 2024

In the world of Katya Apekina’s hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry new nov­el, Moth­er Doll, a soul is not dis­crete — it’s porous and frag­men­tary. When trau­ma­tized, a soul will lodge itself into the soul of the next gen­er­a­tion like a yolk inside an egg, or one Matryosh­ka doll inside anoth­er. Peo­ple, this zany and mov­ing book sug­gests, are made of mul­ti­ple spirits.

More than one hun­dred years ago, Iri­na Petrovna’s own soul split. A Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ary want­ed by the Sovi­ets, she left her four-year-old daugh­ter in an orphan­age and fled to Amer­i­ca to begin a new life. Well, half of her began a new life. The oth­er half stayed where it was, frozen by this unthink­able choice. Now that Irina’s dead, her young self floats around the after­life, wait­ing for for­give­ness. Enter Paul Zel­mont, a psy­chic who stum­bles into Iri­na in the spir­it world while look­ing for a client’s dead Pomeran­ian. Sens­ing a sell­able book, he con­nects her with her great-grand­daugh­ter Zhe­nia, in the hope that she will hear Irina’s sto­ry and grant her abso­lu­tion. Zhe­nia, preg­nant, under­em­ployed, and roman­ti­cal­ly lost, needs a project, even if she resents Iri­na deeply for betray­ing her beloved babush­ka. Thus, a dia­logue begins, across the bounds of this mor­tal plane. 

The book tells two sto­ries in par­al­lel: Irina’s his­tor­i­cal tale of the com­mu­nist under­ground and Zhenia’s con­tem­po­rary search for love and pur­pose. It’s a tes­ta­ment to Apekina’s taut writ­ing that Irina’s sto­ries of foment­ing rev­o­lu­tion don’t drown out Zhenia’s more pro­sa­ic con­cerns about her job and fail­ing mar­riage. Both women — the hard, tor­ment­ed Iri­na, and the spacey, dither­ing Zhe­nia — feel ful­ly real­ized. Nei­ther is par­tic­u­lar­ly lik­able, and yet each is easy to love.

The book is casu­al about its para­nor­mal ele­ments, and spends very lit­tle time ques­tion­ing them. Is Iri­na actu­al­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ing with Zhe­nia via a pet psy­chic, or is she a mere man­i­fes­ta­tion of Zhenia’s inher­it­ed trau­ma? It doesn’t mat­ter — a frag­ment of Iri­na lives, regard­less of her form. 

Despite the hor­rors of war that Apekina depicts, Moth­er Doll is a fun­ny book, full of strange and delight­ful char­ac­ters. There are insur­gents and intel­lec­tu­als, aris­to­crats and actors. Rasputin makes a mem­o­rable appear­ance. It’s won­der­ful­ly sexy, too, and not just in the present day. For all the suf­fer­ing the world has inflict­ed on this matri­lin­eal line, love and care con­tin­ue to endure. The women find their way. It may be pos­si­ble, in the end, to make a whole from the sum of our parts. 

Discussion Questions