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Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić (thoughts)

June 27, 2011

Remember last year, when I gushed about White is for Witching? And a little while later, it appeared on several other blogs, mainly with bloggers shaking their heads over the weirdness of it (one blog actually wrote that anyone who said they enjoyed it was a) lying and b) pretentious)? I don’t want that to happen again. So I shall say up front: Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is not structured or written like a traditional novel. It is experimental, and you won’t always know exactly what is going on. But it’s magic, and I loved every page of it. :D

Ugrešić is a Croatian author, and she’s played with the Slavic fairy tale character Baba Yaga (powerful witch who looks like an ugly old woman and lives in a house that runs around on chicken legs) as part of the Canongate Myth series. As you might imagine, Baba Yaga is a character ripe for feminist retelling, and the book hit all the right notes for me. It’s divided into three very different parts; the first part is told in first-person by a middle-aged woman reflecting on her relationship with her old mother (who has characteristics/features that resemble a certain someone), who has Alzheimer’s or dementia or something like that. I found this to be convincing and touching; I empathised with aspects of both the daughter and mother’s behavior, and I loved seeing the little Baba Yaga touches. Towards the end, the daughter goes on a journey to Romania, to a small village her mother used to love, and is joined by a young scholar who is a little bit stalker-ish; I was fascinated to see how this new relationship would unfold. On its own, and with a different title, this could be a relatively straightforward modern novella: Ugrešić is a powerful writer and she depicts a mother-daughter relationship that seemed completely authentic without conjuring up any cliches. The next part becomes a little crazier: three older women (one very old, who we seen find out is the mother from the first section) arrive at a spa in the Czech Republic. Many hijinks ensue, which reflect on Slavic fairy tale motifs, and there are some coincidences of Dickensian proportions. One again, I loved seeing how Ugrešić interpreted old stories for a modern setting, and the characters, while being ‘types,’ seemed to jump out of the pages. This is the section that I expect would lose some readers. And finally, the third part was quite cheeky: it’s a letter from the young scholar we saw in section one to the editor/publisher of the first two sections of the novel, explicating the connections between them and fairy-tale Baba Yaga, with many academic discursions on Slavic fairy tales in general. The fictional aspect comes in with the scholar’s increasingly unreliable narration, but for the most part this is nonfiction literary/cultural analysis. So essentially, Ugrešić gets to explain her own writing to the reader! I don’t think there are many times when a novel gets away with something like that, but this is one of them. It fit with the reclaiming of older women, a group marginalised, as people who still have their own identity; it with the postmodern feel to the fiction in the first two sections; and it just fit with the whip-smart intelligence and tongue-in-cheek irreverence of Ugrešić’s writing.

In short, while this probably isn’t for everyone, I adored it and can’t wait to read more of Ugrešić. And if my description sounds interesting, I encourage you to give it a go: it is experimental but still accessible (much clearer than White is for Witching), the writing is stunning, the characters memorable, and the feminist aspects will make you do a couple mental fist pumps. Not to mention, thanks to the third section, even if you don’t know anything about Baba Yaga beforehand you’ll still understand the references! ;)

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33 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2011 6:36 am

    How interesting sounding. I’m not sure I can handle it but maybe I need to give it a try. I’m Croatian, so I’ve always wanted to try some Croatian literature!

  2. June 27, 2011 7:48 am

    *happy dance happy dance* I’m so excited that you liked this one!! I remember reading the post that you mention about White is for Witching. I’ve make myself forget who it was though because I seriously love Oyeyemi (even if I STILL haven’t picked that one up to finish!). I really loved this book and felt the structure was just perfect for the book, even though I’m more of a traditional narrative kind of reader usually. LOVE this book though. Actually, anything by Ugresic :)

    (If you want to try more by her, I would recommend her collection of short essays Thank You for Not Reading – FANTASTIC.)

    • June 28, 2011 1:47 pm

      Told you we don’t always disagree! ;) And I can’t remember which blogger it was either, but I remember the post linked to my review, which I thought was in rather poor taste. Anyway, thnx for pointing me towards her essay collection: my library doesn’t have it but I can try ILL!

  3. June 27, 2011 8:13 am

    I admit that most of the Cannongate Myth series has not appealed to me, but this sounds really fascinating. More and more I have been drawn to novels that are unconventional in their structure and try to push the boundaries of what we consider “acceptable” storytelling. I will definitely have to check this out!

    • June 28, 2011 1:49 pm

      I’m curious to see what you think! I’ve only read 2 others in the series (Penelopiad & A Short History of Myth) and loved them both.

  4. June 27, 2011 8:26 am

    This one is absolutely on my radar!!! Can’t wait to get hold of it.

  5. June 27, 2011 10:04 am

    I am so glad this is good! I’ve had my eye on it for quite some time. I like Ugrešić and have read some of her nonfiction which isn’t exactly conventional either, but haven’t done any of her fiction yet. I have a B&N gift card and Ih ave been wondering what I would get with it. Maybe it will be this.

  6. June 27, 2011 10:32 am

    I’ve seen this one around…maybe the fates are telling me to read it. :-) I’m not much for non-traditional (never did finish White is for Witching) but I don’t want to write this one off because I didn’t enjoy another book. I’ll have to pick it from the library and see what happens.

    • June 28, 2011 1:50 pm

      This is more traditional than White is for Witching, so do give it a try!

  7. June 27, 2011 11:01 am

    Wow. Let’s hope that person never discovers MY blog, as experimental fiction is pretty much the majority of what I read! I must be quite the pretentious liar. (And White is for Witching sounds like just my kind of book; I keep meaning to pick up a copy.)

    Baba Yaga sounds good, too. And I’m intrigued by Stefanie’s comment that Ugrešić’s nonfiction is “not exactly conventional either”!

    • June 28, 2011 1:50 pm

      Yeah; I was not amused, esp since the blogger link to me in the post. Wtf?! I’m curious about her nonfic after Stefanie’s comment too!

  8. June 27, 2011 1:14 pm

    I read this one a while ago and I didn’t get on with it as well as you, especially in the beginning, but I did just love that last section. It made the whole book come together in my head, so I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought I would. It was very well done and very smart!

  9. June 27, 2011 1:32 pm

    Ooooh I’ve wanted to read this ever since I started my way through the Canongate Myths…its my birthday in three months, I might start dropping some hints!

  10. June 27, 2011 1:54 pm

    I definitely need to grab this one at some point as Baba Yaga has shown up in a couple of my reads over the past few years and I need to explore the myth more.

  11. June 27, 2011 7:30 pm

    I wasn’t lying or pretentious about White Is for Witching! And I am dead thrilled that Helen Oyeyemi has a new book coming out, and this sounds like a brilliant read!

    • June 28, 2011 1:51 pm

      We need to form a club: non-pretentious truth tellers who love Oyeyemi. I hadn’t seen about her new title: how exciting!

  12. June 27, 2011 7:37 pm

    This is the first I’ve heard of this book, but it does sound very interesting. I keep reading about all these fairy-tale inspired books, but I don’t think I’ve read any. Considering that I read just about every fairy tale book the library had when I was in elementary school, maybe I need to remedy that!

  13. June 27, 2011 8:52 pm

    I really want to read this, but my library doesn’t have it! I considered buying it, but the post office in Canada has been on strike! So, obviously I am going to have to wait… Even though they are going back tomorrow they are very far behind!

  14. June 27, 2011 11:45 pm

    My Cracked Spinz book group is going to do Green Grass, Running Water in November. Yay!!!

  15. June 28, 2011 1:49 pm

    I loved White is for Witching and I am neither lying nor pretentious! ;)
    This book has been on my list for a while as well…it sounds so intriguing!

  16. June 28, 2011 4:19 pm

    I loved White is for Witching and was really excited to see how much you loved it too when you originally posted your review. This book sounds like something I’d really get into.

  17. June 28, 2011 5:34 pm

    I bought this book when it was first published but haven’t read it yet. I’m so glad that you loved it. I think I’ll add it to my summer reading pile. :)

  18. June 28, 2011 7:16 pm

    Ooh, it sounds good! I read White is for Witching and wanted to like it more than I actually did…I think reading it on the nook didn’t do the story any favors, but I also wanted the whole house thing to be clearer.

    • June 30, 2011 1:48 pm

      Ohh: yeah, I remember flipping back quite a bit while reading, so I think it being on an ereader would’ve been frustrating.

  19. June 29, 2011 12:26 pm

    Yes, how very pretentious of you, how dare you enjoy a book someone else didn’t? ;D That is one weird reaction!
    I want to read this one for Jo and my myth challenge but I’m not very worried about not understanding the book. I love experimental fiction and being lost is pretty much the postmodern condition :)

    • June 30, 2011 1:49 pm

      I don’t really worry when I don’t understand everything going on in a book either! I figure it’ll clear up eventually. ;)

      • July 1, 2011 4:00 am

        I wanted to read this one with Bina too. Is this experimental fiction and postmodern? oh dear but I’m going to read this anyway!

  20. June 29, 2011 1:19 pm

    This book has been on my wishlist forEVER. I think I just need to go to the library and ILL it already!

    • June 30, 2011 1:49 pm

      ILL for the win! Maybe my library will send you its copy. :D

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