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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From behind the door a sound bursts out, mechanical and persistent, like the tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker, and I swing around, startled, then realize what it is. When I turn back, the mermaid is gone, just like that, and my mother is fastening her old gray robe around her. "Your father is working, we must be quiet," she says in a near whisper as she leans over me and fumbles with the clasp of the necklace under my hair. Stupidly I watch while she neatens up the earrings and bracelets in their plush compartments, closes the lid with care, slides the box back into the drawer. "And it's time for you to go to bed."

I want to tell her about the mermaid, to ask her a question, but something stops me – whether the flat intonation of her strangely loosened voice, or else the memory of the secret, gemlike place where things seemed at once more wondrous and more frightening than in real life. I walk to the door in silence. From the threshold I glance back at the room, and it is as always, warm and cozy and small, full of pillows and blankets and smiling ladies in oval frames, on both sides of the oval mirror. I am comforted to think that the sinister treasure is once again only a wooden box with pretty trinkets under the woolen stockings in the dresser, comforted to see my mother moving her tender, steady hands over the covers of the bed, smoothing them out in a gesture I have seen hundreds of times.

I prefer things this way, I tell myself. Really, I do.

"Go to sleep, my love," says my mother, looking up briefly, not meeting my eyes. "Your father will be wanting his tea now."

As I walk into the chill of the hallway, I think: But maybe I don't.



It is just after dinner on Thursday, time for our weekly Culture Hour. My father and I are seated at his desk, himself in his old armchair of cherry-colored leather, cracked along the middle, myself by his side, kneeling on a stool I lugged in from the kitchen.

On the radio, turned down low, a concerto is playing.

"Vivaldi, 'La Folia,'" my father says after listening for a moment. "Appropriate in view of today's subject."

He reaches for the stack of books beside his typewriter and chooses a volume of Italian Renaissance paintings, which he opens to a marked page; like so many books in his study, it is bristling with the slivers of green, blue, and pink paper. My father makes the bookmarks himself by neatly cutting multicolored index cards into narrow strips, perfectly straight, though he never uses a ruler (he has an uncanny ability to draw straight lines), then jots down a heading or a quote along the strip in his meticulous, miniscule hand. The colors are not random, either; they follow some complicated scheme of his, though its principles always escape me. As he pulls the volume closer and carefully sets the blue bookmark down on his immaculate desk, next to the framed photograph of my mother, I tilt my head sideways until I can read the words written along it: "Ideal city."

"This evening," says my father, "we will talk about the Renaissance concept of the 'ideal city.' The concept itself did not originate in the Renaissance. The first man to study it in depth was the Greek philosopher Plato – you remember, we discussed him last month. Now Plato, in his 'Republic' –"

For the first minute or two I do nothing but luxuriate in the smell of the study. It is my favorite smell in the world, a noble smell that I like to imagine as deep, quiet, burgundy-hued, though in fact it is not one smell but a mixture of smells, all equally marvelous: the sharp, crispy smell of shiny art volumes, a bit like wet autumn leaves; the softer, more complex smell of thick treatises on history and philosophy whose desiccated leather spines crowd the shelves and between whose pages reside entire flocks of shy dust sprites that come out to play at dusk – I used to watch them for hours when I was younger; the metallic, oily, inky smell of my father's mechanical typewriter, which, even when given a rare hour of rest, seems to radiate the heat of its passionate staccatos; the sweet ghostly smell of my father's aromatic tobacco, which a friend brought from somewhere far away and which he smokes only on special occasions; I know he keeps the dwindling pouch in the middle drawer of his desk, just above the drawer with a fascinating wealth of compartmentalized pens, erasers, and paper clips, just below the drawer that is always locked . . .

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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