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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Before I Croak

Anna Babiashkina

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To purchase Before I Croak

Title: Before I Croak
Author: Anna Babiashkina
Genre: Novel
Written: (2011) (Eng. 2013)
Length: 207 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Before I Croak - US
Before I Croak - UK
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  • Russian title: Прежде чем сдохнуть
  • Translated by Muireann Maguire
  • Debut Prize, 2011

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Our Assessment:

B : feels a bit aimless for a while, but ultimately agreeably entertaining

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Like the author of Before I Croak, its narrator, Sofia Arkadyevna Bulgakova, was born in 1979 -- but this protagonist is a different kind of authorial alter ego, as Sonya (as she is usually called) tells her tale at age sixty, the novel being set in the year 2039. Though she looks into the future, Before I Croak is only modestly futuristic, as author Babiashkina doesn't concern herself too much with how the world might change in the next quarter of a century; indeed, with its characters still using Microsoft Word, Facebook, and LiveJournal -- surely all destined to be obsolete and forgotten in any recognizable-to-us form by the 2030s -- the general feel of her surroundings and time is distinctly contemporary. The lack of ambition in envisioning an in almost any way more advanced or technologically changed world gives the book a bit of a lazy feel at the beginning -- but then that is also somewhat appropriate, since the narrator is a fairly resigned character.
       An introductory section, set in September 2039, finds Sonya explaining that she's now finally come to write her book -- a last act, before she croaks -- and that it was her new circumstances that gave her the necessary push. Those new circumstance started in the spring, when her son and his girlfriend shipped her off to a retirement home, The Mounds, and rented out her Moscow apartment. Though only sixty, the private pension fund she had invested all her money in went bust, leaving her without savings in her retirement. She was taking up space that could be rented for at least a decent flow of money (yes, the Moscow housing shortage apparently also had not been solved by 2039, either), so the obvious solution was to send her off into the boondocks. She was worried that, because she could only afford a cheap home, she would be surrounded by others who weren't her intellectual and social equal, but of course many had suffered similar setbacks and so she found herself among her own -- too much, in some ways, since she also found herself surrounded by other would-be writers. (As to why her son chose The Mounds, it turns out that money wasn't the only factor he took into consideration.)
       Sonya doesn't take to the place -- considering it a: "halfway-house to hell" -- and quickly antagonizes many of her fellow retirees with her aggressive critical attitude (especially about their writing ...). She even flees back to Moscow, and then into completely uncharted territory -- but realizes eventually that she has to face The Mounds again:

I need to go to the home. Sure I wonít have it easy there, but thatís a kind of pain that I need right now. Through that pain, Iím becoming the real me.
       It turns out that there are far more connections among the residents of The Mounds than Sonya could have guessed, and as she unearths some of them after her return (including some from her own past) she also finds the material for the book she's always wanted to write. The overlap among the various retirees' lives -- which many were unaware of -- makes for an increasingly entertaining and involving tale. From a hell of a lot of paternity issues to an unfortunate medical error to an old mass-murder (an entire football team's starting eleven was poisoned), the past is slowly resolved in the present, with (and despite) Sonya's interfering hand.
       Quite a few decent stories bubble through Before I Croak, but it takes a while for Babiashkina to come to grips with her framing-device (and narrator), and there remains something half-hearted about the poorly imagined future (essentially: the present, conveniently set in 2039) and the way Sonya barrels through these months. So also it feels a bit odd for Babiashkina to have Sonya then embrace what The Mounds has to offer so quickly and completely, even to the extent that she cries: "It was where I really felt alive !" -- all the more so given the final twist on offer (yes, the title of the novel was chosen for a reason ...).
       Veering about with too little focus for its first half, Before I Croak ultimately does settle into a reasonably entertaining read with a heavy dose of intrigue(s) and a nice touch of mystery. Sonya is a bit too unsteady as a narrator -- too close to the story, perhaps ? -- but at least she keeps the readers on their toes: Before I Croak remains enjoyably unpredictable throughout.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 September 2013

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Before I Croak: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Russian literature
  • Other books from Glas

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About the Author:

       Russian author Anna Babiashkina (Anna Leonidovna; Анна Леонидовна Бабяшкина) was born in 1979.

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