The young author was born in Magadan, the former transit point for Stalin's Gulag camps in north-east Russia. At 15, she emigrated with her family to Alaska, did a degree at New York University and now resides in El Paso, Texas. Melnik fits neatly into her own book of short stories, a series of narratives about the inhabitants and migrants from the isolated city of Magadan.
The fact that place, more than people, links these stories is a powerful device. Magadan is miles from the nearest city; the only way to this mountainous region is by plane or boat. Magadan's different stages, from post-Cold War zone to its present state as an administrative hub, are central to each story. How the city develops informs the characters' lives and opportunities. It's smart then, that Melnik stamps each story with a specific date so that readers can connect the social and political history to the narrative.
Deprivation and need are strong themes. In the opening story, Love, Italian Style Or In Line For Bananas, set just after the Cold War, Tanya travels to Moscow, which is rich in comparison to her home town. She has a list of luxuries to purchase for her young family. But when an Italian man makes a pass at her, it is all she can think about. She purchases some tropical fruit, a metaphor for her sex life: "And maybe something exotic and a little magical to jolt their life, if only for a moment, out of its bread and potatoes doldrums."
The need to be free of Magadan while retaining a strange fidelity to the place is explored in these stories. Told in a slightly irritating expositional manner, Closed Fracture describes best friends who share the first name Anatoly. The two lead parallel lives in Magadan - same schools, same mid-level jobs, similar marriages to docile wives. Then the narrator Anatoly Tolyik moves to America and lives a prosperous life compared to Anatoly Tolyan, who cannot leave his disabled child. Tolyik believes he is the lucky one until a heart attack threatens his life. In the last scene on a California beach he sees the snowy mountains of Magadan and wishes he had never left.
There is the same sense of humble loyalty in Kruchina, where a traditional Russian mother, Masha, visits her daughter and granddaughter in Fairbanks, Alaska. Having arranged her daughter's marriage through a dating agency, Masha is worried about Sveta's relationship to Brian, a high school teacher obsessed with Russian history and women. At the green card party, Masha and her granddaughter pointedly sing for the audience the song Kruchina, a tune about a woman's role in life. It's an odd, uncomfortable ending to this piece which explores how little Americans really understand Russian culture.
As Melnik is a migrant herself looking back at her home country, it occasionally feels as though the stories explore stereotypical Russian identities. The importance of classical music in Russian culture is seen in The Uncatchable Avengers, where a young boy records a Tchaikovsky piano march with difficulty. Men are violent drunks with little respect for women. Women are usually portrayed as superior; they are resourceful, independent and band together in tougher times. In Strawberry Lipstick, a woman escapes her card-gambling husband to become a doctor. In Summer Medicine, a girl idolises her grandmother, also a doctor. One is left wondering if these stories owe more to optimism than reality.
Melnik's stories have a ruminating, relentlessly unhappy tone. Some stories also end vaguely, leaving the reader to ponder the point. However, in Rumba, the point is clear. This narrative describes a disillusioned studio teacher who has dedicated his life to training dance pairs. In the final scene, he kisses his current child protégé against her will. This is abuse surely, but for the older man the kiss is a huge release, since "he couldn't understand how up to now he had managed to carry this feeling inside". Melnik is able to reveal human deficiency, even monstrosity, and connect it to the conditions under which her characters grew up.