by Maria Reva
Good Citizens Need Not Fear is, succinctly, a collection of connected short stories, but a fuller description is a bit more complicated. Set in a small, late Soviet-era Ukrainian town, the stories build upon the previous ones and often bleed into the stories that follow, creating an ongoing narrative that showcases the lives of a recurring cast as it approaches and survives the fall of the USSR. Centred on 1933 Ivansk––a building not registered in the record books and, therefore, officially, one that doesn’t exist––Reva explores how ordinary citizens adapt to desperate times within an uncaring system.
There’s a lot to like in Good Citizens Need Not Fear. A number of stories employ the narrative to explore and comment on a central concept in compelling ways. Reva takes a story about paranoia between neighbours in “Bone Music” to show the confining nature of fear. Another good example comes from “Lucky Toss,” where bodily harm is used to create a visceral portrayal of guilt eating away at someone. And characters within stories like “Letter of Apology” and “Miss USSR” have organic arcs that allow the narratives to build effectively to a satisfying payoff.
The awkward moment for me talking about Good Citizens Need Not Fear is that my least favourite story was probably “Homecoming,” the last one in the collection. And the reason I say it’s awkward is that it really feels like Reva tried really hard to bring everything together in a satisfying way, yet it didn’t work for me. I was looking to things like overtly exploring thoughts or a clumsy representation of concepts as plausible explanations, but I think that the incomplete nature of the story as an independent entity is closer to the most reasonable explanation I can arrive at. Much like the earlier story “Little Rabbit,” “Homecoming” feels more like a chapter in a novel than a short story. In the case of “Little Rabbit,” it serves to introduce one of the central characters, but it doesn’t have an obvious end before moving to the next story. “Homecoming,” conversely, is tasked at ending the larger narrative that permeates the collection. The difficulty of this task comes from bringing disparate elements from previous stories together in an attempt to create the build to this end because those were largely present within stories that wrapped up their respective plots. While these elements themselves may have been left unresolved, the act of ending these stories deflates the action and tension, meaning we have to start again if we actually want to get there. And this, I’d argue, wasn’t done, at least not effectively.
Could this have been avoided? Now that I’ve taken the time to really consider it, I’d argue it probably could have been, but I’d also argue that the difficulty lies in marrying the short story with the longer narrative, that each works differently, requiring different sets of writing skills. After finishing her book, I really believe Reva possesses those skills; it’s clear to see that she understands at least the short story well enough to create narratives that are interesting, straightforward, and smart. The problem comes when applying them in the best way to make something unique. And the base act of attempting an experiment like Good Citizens Need Not Fear itself holds value, mainly because it can be analyzed in order to shed light on what actually goes into telling a good story in important ways that otherwise couldn’t be understood from a book possessing a standard makeup or structure.