Written by Eugene Vodolazkin Lisa Hayden (trans.)
Review by Anne Clinard Barnhill

Eugene Vodolazkin’s second novel, Laurus, is the winner of two major Russian literary awards. His first novel, Solovyov and Larionov, also garnered notice and was shortlisted for the Andrei Bely Prize and the Big Book Prize. But be warned—though a prize-winner, Laurus is a difficult read, mixing language from current-day expressions to sentences that resound with Biblical authority to phrases which use spellings from the 15th century. Sometimes, these shifts occur within one paragraph.

Laurus tell the story of Arseny, a young boy when the story opens, who learns medicine from his grandfather, Christofer. Arseny is an apt pupil and continues his grandfather’s medical practice after his grandfather dies. Living on his own without any family, Arseny dutifully and creatively heals the many who come to him. He discovers a girl, Ustina, living outside his hut. She is sick and covered in sores. He brings her into the hut, bathes her and begins to heal her. As you might imagine, they fall in love. Unfortunately, though Arseny has studied childbirth with his grandfather, when the time comes for Ustina to deliver their baby, Arseny doesn’t know what to do because this birth is difficult. Both mother and baby die. Arseny refuses to bury them, until the villagers come to the hut and insist. Soon after, Arseny leaves the village, driven to atone for Ustina’s and the baby’s deaths.

From this point on, Arseny, now called Ustin, begins his travels over plague-ridden Europe. He is searching for redemption and trying to make restitution for his failure to save Ustina. Bold, rich and complex, Laurus deals with large issues: the concept of time, love and death, love and guilt. Not for everyone, this unusual novel brings many challenges.