Excerpt from Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Forty Rooms

by Olga Grushin

Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin X
Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin
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  • Published:
    Feb 2016, 352 pages


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Poornima Apte
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Print Excerpt

I am about to tiptoe out when the mermaid looks up and beckons me toward her.

"Do you want me to show you?" she asks.

Her voice is like my mother's, but her eyes are not: they too are green, but their shifting depths lack the familiar misty softness; they glitter instead with joyous, hard brilliance, just like the brilliance I can already see trapped inside the jewelry box.

Now and then there are strange creatures to be stumbled upon in my mother's bedroom – it is my parents' bedroom really, but I have always thought of it as my mother's alone – yet the mermaid makes me uneasy. She seems almost dangerous, more unpredictable than any of the others, not in the least like the kindly plump woman in the oval painting above the armchair who rambles about Brussels lace and satin slippers at teatime, or the two yellow-winged fairies who every spring morning slide down the sunbeams onto the dresser to splash in my mother's perfume bottles, or the man smiling with bright white teeth under a wiry mustache who used to pay afternoon calls the summer I was five. (I liked him best of all because once or twice, just before he gently pushed me out into the hallway and locked the door behind me, he had given me a chocolate candy bar in crinkly wrappers with unfamiliar letters on the side, and also because he possessed magic powers and was invisible to everyone but me. "That child has such a wild imagination," my mother said laughing gaily after I had mentioned the visitor with the mustache one night at supper, and my father laughed too, though not as gaily, and ruffled my hair. I felt offended at not being believed, but more than that, I regretted letting go of something that had been mine and mine alone: I found that I liked having secrets all my own. After that, I never said anything to anyone about the things I saw in my mother's bedroom.)

The mermaid has already forgotten about me. She is staring into the box, moving her fingers over the velvet insides, as if remembering some tune she once played on a piano. I sit down on the edge of the bed, elated but wary. The mermaid begins to speak, but she is not speaking to me; she caresses this or that ring, this or that pendant, and tells long, winding tales I cannot follow.

"These cupid earrings," she says, "have been in the family for four generations. Your great-grandmother received them as a sign of special favor from the tsar's youngest uncle. He had them presented to her the night she premiered as Dulcinea. She had gifts from many men, of course, but this was the only thing she held on to when forced to sell off all her possessions in the civil war. One wonders why she kept them. She struggled so to feed her children, and the earrings would have brought in bread enough to last a month. But women in this family have always had their mysteries . . ." She pauses to take a sip from a nearly empty glass of dark red liquid on my mother's nightstand. "Of course, it was well after her Dulcinea days that she married your great-grandfather and had your grandfather and the twins. But could there have been more to the Grand Duke anecdote? No one to ask about it now – all that's left are two enamel cupids, half a rumor, and maybe, just maybe, a thimble of royal blood."

"Is this my great-grandmother the ballet dancer?" I ask, confused. "And who is Dulcinea? And what is a thimble?" – but she does not answer, only lightly trails her fingers over the golden fire imprisoned in the box, and goes on talking.

"And see this ring? See how the emerald is uncut, rough and enormous, like some green, misshapen bird's egg? This came from an ancient icon, from one of those priceless frames set with stones big as rocks. So many were vandalized in the revolution, hacked apart, hidden by drunks in rotting village coffers. Your grandfather got the emerald at the end of the war, traded it from another soldier for a length of smoked sausage and a box of German sweets, then kept it for years in an empty salt shaker. Eventually he had it set for Elena, your grandmother – a simple pewter setting, he could afford nothing more."

Excerpted from Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin. Copyright © 2016 by Olga Grushin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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