Set primarily in Bulgaria, Virginia Zaharieva’s novel Nine Rabbits follows its narrator Manda from girlhood to middle age. In its first part, Manda grows up in rural poverty, raised by a grandmother who once jabs her arm with needles as punishment for suspected theft and considers hugs “mollycoddling.” In its second, Manda is middle-aged, separated from her husband, and suffering from severe writer’s block, feeling inadequate and insecure in her intellectual circles.
The novel is studded with recipes. After the punishment mentioned above, the novel recounts a recipe for rose jam. Some of the recipes have personal asides or poetic flourishes–the eggs a la armenien should be “serve[d] with a cup of hot coffee after making love in bed”–but the majority are straightforward.
The recipes aren’t vital to the novel, as Manda’s love of food, and the joy it provides her in a tumultuous childhood, comes through clearly in the narration, as when she cans tomatoes with nuns (“I adored holding a warm, stretched-to-bursting tomato in my hand”). However, they don’t come off as gimmicky either.
Nine Rabbits is about Manda’s inner struggles more than any nation’s political situation, but Communism occasionally butts in. Authorities break into the monastery where Manda canned tomatoes, and Czech vacationers renting a room in their house gather around the radio to hear of the failed counterrevolution. Later, after the fall of the USSR, Manda reflects (not kindly) on socialism: “If this system is aimed at man and his welfare, why does it create ugliness, poverty, and evil?”
The novel’s second half also touches on writer’s block, feminism (“Being an object is tiring”), and menopause, but collectively, these sketches and reflections don’t make up anything more than the sum of its parts. It’s frustrating, but not a fatal flaw–Manda’s mind is fractured, and the narrative reflects that. Despite this messiness, Zaharieva succeeds in telling the story of a girl coming of age without quite coming to grips with herself.
–Published in April by Black Balloon Press