Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel, by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, revolves around the Nasmertov family, who have emigrated from Odessa, a city by the sea, to Brighton Beach, another city by the sea. Brighton Beach was often called “Little Odessa”.
The comfort level of the area is one reason the family chose the location. An immigrant from Odessa could find anything that their homeland offered, in Brighton Beach. From food to furniture to household items to clothes and material goods, it could all be had.
This very fact is what held the elders of the family within its fold. It is what prompted them to convince their son, Pasha, to emigrate from Odessa. Pasha, on the other hand, procrastinated, and waited until the last minute.
His role in the book is one of a man who doesn’t seem to be motivated by anything in life, positive or otherwise. He lags behind in everything. He doesn’t quite get the situation or the city he has arrived in, and has no desire to find out the aspects of life within the realm of Brighton Beach.
The story deals with the way that life is perceived during a time of assimilation. It brings the reader snippets of the procedures to assimilate, and also yearnings for what once was in the homeland. The desire for change does not necessarily overrule the comfort of what the homeland held in a person’s daily life.
The reader is taken on a twenty-year journey through the Nasmertov family’s treks to fit in, to understand the cultural divide between homeland and their new land. The journey is humorous at times, but only to the extent of familial actions, and also how they are viewed by those around them. The humor is more of an enhancement of what it means to survive in a country so unlike the one you emigrated from.
Nostalgia is a strong undertone within the pages. Comfort levels of every aspect is depicted. Familial bonds do not necessarily provide the comfort one needs.
Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s debut novel, Panic in a Suitcase, is filled with descriptions of Coney Island and Brighton Beach, that one can capture through their five senses. The novel is also an examination of the immigrant and their experiences and endeavors to fit in, despite strong memories of the past.
I enjoyed reading about the cultural issues, and enjoyed the word-imagery regarding the beach cities. I am extremely familiar with those cities and with the cultural aspects depicted in the story. I, myself, have fond memories of Brighton Beach in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The novel transported me back to times past.