The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil (Grove Atlantic, 2014)
"From afar it glittered, the border between the mirror-lit world and the darkness of the one beyond, shimmered as if all the stars lost from view inside the city had been swept out to the edge in swaths of dust."Russia, or a concept of Russia anyway, engages our imaginations in a fantastic way unlike many other geographic locations we can conceive of. We think of an old, agrarian Russia, with bitterly cold winters and never-ending dark nights, picturesque churches topped with onion-shaped domes, larger-than-life tsars and tsarinas and work-weathered peasants, folk tales and storytelling, music and dance; we envision the tension and deprivation of war years and the cold war; we wonder now about millionaires and booming capitalism and commercialism and corruption.
Josh Weil's The Great Glass Sea invokes all these images and then re-envisions a Russia - not exactly today's Russia, but rather an alternative Russia - perched right on the cusp between old and new. The cold, deprived landscape of old Russia is in the process of being transformed into a highly productive agricultural powerhouse with The Consortium's construction of the Oranzheria, a vast, constantly-expanding ceiling of glass spreading across the city and countryside that, combined with an equally vast network of mirrors, mean that endless night has turned into endless day. Two brothers, Dima and Yarik, are employed working on the Oranzheria, but while one is driven by a sense of responsibility to work, family and economic security, the other holds fast to a simpler dream of returning to the family farm. As the novel unfolds, their conflicting desires drive them apart and the reader is torn between nostalgia for a past way of life and the practicalities of the modern world.
I was eager to read The Great Glass Sea having so much enjoyed the author's striking collection of novellas, The New Valley a few years ago. From the charming, fairytale-like opening image of two young boys stranded, oarless, on a boat in the middle of a lake at night, I loved the premise of the novel. The Oranzheria itself is a captivating concept, and its outwardly-extending edge is brilliant as a moving border, provoking and reflecting the tense emotional borders between the brothers. I especially enjoyed Dima's - the dreamer brother's - unravelling of sorts - drawn to his idealism, frustrated by his self-imposed poverty, charmed by his deep love but poorly-executed care for his mother and beloved pet rooster. Like Yarik, I was a little less sure of the "why me" of the relationship between The Consortium's business leader and this more sensible brother, so that piece of the story felt a little weaker, though later revelations added an interesting, complicating layer to the brothers' conflict. Above all, the relationship between the brothers felt very real and compelling, and provided so much to consider about family, tradition, and the unforeseen consequences of modern humans' attempts to manipulate our environment. I must also mention the gorgeous cover and the beautiful interior artwork adorning the headings of each chapter, all of which perfectly add to the transporting quality of the novel. Recommended for readers who enjoy a stealthy, deep, sink-into-the-story-and-savor-the-ideas-and-some-great-writing kind of read.
If you would like to know more, I recommend Matt Bell's interview with the author over at The Brooklyn Rail.
My copy of The Great Glass Sea came from my local public library.