Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva follows a woman named Manda from childhood in 1960s communist Bulgaria through to her middle age in the now capitalist country as a writer/artist trying to come to terms with her identity. By necessity, Manda spends part of her childhood suffering at the hands of her bitter grandmother. She escapes that and later becomes trapped in an abusive marriage. Once she finally frees herself from that as well, she struggles with a crisis of self that threatens to shut down her artistic production.
I enjoyed the journey in Nine Rabbits. I found it worth reading for the story alone, being an unfamiliar life perspective. However, since this was the first novel by a Bulgarian author that I’d read, the opportunity to look at techniques that might not be my normal reading was even more compelling.
For one thing, I noticed that the form changed throughout the book. The Publishers Weekly quote on the back of the book talks about mixing genres: pastoral idyll, sexual coming-of-age story, and feminist memoir. I can see that, but to me that seemed a pretty natural choice for a book that chronicles the growth of a character from a rural setting all the way through an adult identity crisis. It’s deftly done, but I didn’t find the forms especially surprising.
What did interest me was the way that Zaharieva changes prose style with the changing emotional state of the narrator. When she is a child, the prose is straightforward, mixing brutality with daily life comforts:
“Fine,” Nikula said. Sitting on a chair she pressed me between her knees, stuck my left hand under her armpit so I couldn’t defend myself and began quickly jabbing my right one, shouting: “This’ll teach you not to take other people’s money and things that don’t belong to you, you miserable little thief!”
“I wooooon’t,” I screamed from the pain, trying to break away and hoping somebody would appear. But the house was empty. My grandmother wasn’t fooling; she laid into me with the needle like nobody’s business, egging herself on in the name of honesty all the while: “My children don’t steal! Where did this filthy little Sofian fiend pop out of?”
When I was sufficiently perforated, she let me go and told me, as calm as could be, “Stop crying. I’ll disinfect it with iodine.”
As can be seen from the above, the event is presented in past tense with reportage style remembrances. Essentially, it is past. Though terrible, it is done with and we get that she accepted that this was unfortunately the way life was at the time.
Later, when she has not yet realized how controlling her husband is, her words are more immediate with more reflection:
I stand there in my red high heels, corset, stockings, bare ass and beaver, my top half hidden behind the Bordeaux. I deeply inhale the aroma of the graveyard—for that’s how I view chrysanthemums. They are my teachers in the love of life. I prick up my ears to catch the sound of movement from inside the door. Nothing. I ring again. Silence. Just the moist graveyard fragrance and the stoicism of my red high heels.
How could I have slammed the door shut? I ring again. I can’t believe it—yet another stumble into the absurd.
Arman slumbers away drunk and aesthetically exhausted form hours of verbal battles. I pull over my neighbor’s coconut welcome mat and sit down gingerly as it pricks my skin. Three o’clock in the morning. He’s sleeping the deep hearty sleep of a man of forty and I’m sitting bare-assed on the steps in front of my own apartment, my pussy hanging out for anyone to see.
To contrast with the previous selection, we are now in present tense. The prose is still relatively straightforward, but more immediate impressions and associations are mixed in. Instead of an event distanced by time, the reader feels the embarrassment freshly happening. I felt unsure along with Manda, stumbling.
Later still, when Manda’s mental state and relationship problems intensify, her words become even more immediate and almost stream of consciousness:
At that moment there is a terrifying bang. I don’t understand what’s going on. When I come to my senses, the whole kitchen is filled with firebrands and thick smoke. I stand there, stunned; I don’t know for how long. Someone inside me fills buckets with water, screams!
I stomp, pour, and extinguish. The stone slab in front of the mouth of the oven has exploded, filling the whole room with red-hot rocks, embers, and burning wood.
The house cannot stand this pain. My feeling of guilt. It can’t stand me. It wants to kill me.
Still in present tense, this selection is different from the second example above by the fact that Manda isn’t even finished processing what is happening when it is related. She isn’t reacting but is instead about to react. We get it midstream and must try to make sense of it with her. Instead of just feeling Manda’s tentativeness, the reader can feel Manda’s lack of a grip on life in this period.
There is another technique I found particularly interesting used in Nine Rabbits, the periodic inclusion of recipes. There are a number of them, scattered at odd places in the book, each bearing a little silhouette of a rabbit. Recipes for dumplings, rose jam, turkey with chestnuts, and more. Family recipes. Tradition. Comfort. I wonder if that is the function of these recipes, a tie to comfort, tradition, and identity at moments when Manda desperately needs it. Sometimes the particular recipe can even add a note of horror though. After Manda’s grandmother scourges her terribly with nettles, there immediately follows recipes for nettle soup and nettle purée:
Finely slice two pounds of nettles and cook them in one and a half cups of water for five minutes on high and five minutes on low. Brown three tablespoons of flour in a pan until it becomes golden. Add a packet of butter to the flour and gradually combine it with the nettles. Stir the mixture until it becomes a full, thick porridge. For a more attractive presentation, it can be served with a fried egg on top and sprinkled with feta cheese, mint, and crushed walnuts.
I puzzled over the exact function of the recipes within the book, but for such a simple technique it wasn’t so simple to pin down. Though basic, it seems to have a complex variety of functions.
Of course, these were just two of the techniques I found particularly interesting in Nine Rabbits. You should look for yourself to see what Zaharieva does that I might have missed. If nothing else, you can always just enjoy the story. After all, technique isn’t the only engaging aspect. You still need to find out whether Manda survives her adult identity crisis as well as she did her grandmother’s assaults. Sometimes it is easier to escape another’s fists than it is to escape the terrors of our own mind.