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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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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Print Excerpt


"What does 'vandalize' mean?" I ask. "When was the revolution?"

In the circle of soft yellow lamplight the jewels inside their dark nests shift with hidden, treacherous fire. The mermaid takes another sip of the red liquid, tipping the glass into her mouth so abruptly that some drops spill onto the blanket. In profile she seems just like my mother, but every time she moves, every time she speaks, every time she looks past me, not hearing my questions, I am filled anew with the knowledge that she is not.

"And this bracelet I've had since I was a child. It reminds me of all the mornings spent searching for bits of amber in the sand after the tide."

I am pleased to hear something I understand at last. My mother's family came from the Baltics; she grew up spending summers on the Latvian coast. It must have been there that she met the mermaid. I was wrong to ever find the mermaid dangerous, I think with relief. As I shift closer to her gleaming gray flanks, I am startled into pity by a sudden thought. "But isn't the Baltic sea too cold in winter? What do you do if it turns to ice?"

She drops the bracelet back into the box and glances down at me, her metallic green gaze slipping over my face with a swift, cold touch I can almost feel on my skin.

"But that's enough, you are too little to care about the past," she says, and while her tone seems light, the chill of the faraway sea is there, underneath.

My pity abandons me, as does my relief. Once again I am nervous.

She stands up, balancing the box in one hand and the glass in the other.

"Come to the mirror with me."

Together we leave the reassuring circle of light and move into the graying dusk. The mirror over the dresser is oval, curvy, and gilded. On evenings such as this, wintry and still, I like to come and look at my mother's room nestled into its quiet pool. The mirror room is smaller than the real one and has no angles, filled instead with a fuzzy, muted, familiar warmth, so much like my mother's soft presence. But now the two of us are reflected in it, myself in my short white nightgown with green parrots, the mermaid a slim undulation of shadow behind my shoulder, and the mirror room seems different, cold and sharp-edged and mysterious, exciting in a new way, like something marvelous yet harmful, something forbidden, like – like a lollipop I once stole from the kitchen and devoured in crunching, glistening half-licks, half-bites in bed at night, under the covers, without cleaning my teeth afterward.

"Here, let's try this on you, this was your father's gift when you were born, it will be yours someday," the mermaid says as she sets the jewelry box on the dresser and picks up a chain on which dangles a prim little cross of delicate pearls. But I have just spied something else – something I like so much more. Reaching out, I close my fingers on a necklace of small round stones, each kernel of blood-red glow in its own frame of darkness.

"This," I say. "I want this."

Something sharp and hurt flashes in the mermaid's eyes, and when she takes the necklace out of my hand, her movement is not gentle: she rips the strand through my fingers, scratching my palm, surprising me into a little cry. I expect her to throw the necklace back into the box, and slam it shut, and push me away; but a flush grows in her face instead, and suddenly she smiles – the first smile I see, not a kind smile, but oh, so beautiful. She smiles her strange smile, at once brittle and hard, and lays the necklace against the parrots on my gown. In the shadows of the mirror it glints stark and red, like a gash I got on my knee when I was four and fell running on a piece of glass.

"A friend gave it to me," the mermaid says in a defiant voice, as if challenging someone. "A long time ago."

We are silent then, both of us looking at me. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the lady in the oval painting purse her lips and turn away with disapproval, but I continue to stare at my reflection, and after a while I too begin to seem different, as if the silvery, dangerous, shimmering sea were rising within my being. Around us the evening deepens, the lamp by the bed glows brilliant and distant, and slowly the room is transformed into an immense jewelry box, the blue velvet of the night enveloping us tightly, and the mermaid's deceiving eyes are emeralds now, and the congealed drop at the bottom of her glass a ruby, and on the dresser, just between the tray of portly perfume bottles and the clock that always shows the wrong time, there rests a treasure bright and dark, an unfamiliar, thrilling treasure filled to the brim with stories I do not yet understand, stories of guilty gifts, impoverished dancers, ruined churches, wars and revolutions, the grown-up, momentous things of pain and beauty and time.

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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