David Bezmozgis' Natasha: and Other Stories, seven stories about growing up a poor Russian Jewish immigrant in Toronto are so Russian in tone they should be read with a glass of tea at hand and a cube of sugar between one's teeth. Yet they are so Western in theme that even if you've never set foot outside your hometown, they'll make your heart ache.
Newly arrived émigré Mark Berman is a first-grader in "Tapka," Bezmozgis' opening story about the boundaries of trust and the inherent stupidity in leaving a beloved pet with a seven-year-old. By "Minyan," the finale of this short collection, Mark is a young man, idealistic but a little wiser.
The 30-year-old Bezmozgis writes with a depth of grace and wry understanding not usually discovered before middle life. His stories are a potent mixture of the compassionate and the obscene. That combination is most apparent in the collection's title story, "Natasha," in which the 16-year-old Mark has to explore his feelings for teenaged Natasha, his cousin by marriage and a whore by circumstance. She casually leads Mark into a world of fantasy that inevitably comes crashing down, forcing a return to a reality of adult choices.
Though this collection is small, each story packs a devastating wallop as it describes what it means to be a foreigner, an outsider and a Jew in a land where even after half a lifetime, you're never really sure you know the rules.
Ian Schwartz writes from New York City.