Ulinich, like Marisha Pessl and Marina Lewycka, came to the USA (or Britain, in Lewyka´s case) as a teenager and writes in astonishingly perfect English. Consequently, Ulinich got a reward for her writing, stating, that it is among the best of her generation, the under 35s.
And she has written a truly moving, if disturbing story. It begins in “Asbestos 2” a desolate settlement in Siberia, but nevertheless Sasha Goldberg´s , the heroine´s, home. We get to know Sasha, after her father, the black love child of an affair during the World Youth Festival in Moscow in the 60s, has left his small family for America. We learn about Sasha´s unusual family history mostly through her perspective, but then this doesn´t seem enough for Ulinich, so we also see events through her father´s and mother´s eyes, not a very subtle narrative technique.
Her father spent years in a Moscow orphanage, before he was adopted by a rich Jewish couple. He meets his later wife in an army hospital. Sasha is brought up by her ambitious mother as a member of the “Russian Intelligentsia”. But at the age of 15 Sasha gets herself pregnant, gives birth to baby Nadia and is forced by her mum to move to Moscow, to attend classes at the “Moscow Children´s Art School Number One”.
In her acknowledgements Ulinich dedicates her novel to the memory of an art teacher there, so at least this part of the book can be said to be autobiographical. On the whole, however, I think Ulinich distorted and exaggerated reality considerably, which, of course, is every author´s right, but in this case leaves the reader rather angry.
Asbestos 2 is described as a cold hell on earth, deteriorating to such a degree, that Sasha´s mother and Nadia are almost left to die from starvation, whilst our heroine finds her way to the States via a bridal agency. As soon as she arrives in the land of her and her lost father´s dreams, she begins to miss her old home, and is neither happy here nor there. She begins writing imaginary letters to her abandoned little daughter, leaves her husband-to-be and works in a wealthy Jewish household. The handicapped son of the house helps her to escape his mother´s strange regime and get to New York, where she earns her living as a cleaning lady. She finds her father and his new family, gets her Green Card and visits her mother and daughter in Asbestos 2. After her mother´s overdramatic death Sasha takes her daughter back to the States.
To sum up this reader´s impression in Sasha´s own words to her father: “I´m only as black as you, as Russian as you, as Jewish as you.” (p. 260) And that´s just too much.