Specimen

Posted on 17th June 2015

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Often, first books are proclaimed an “experiment” with literature, but for scientist/writer Irina Kovalyova, it’s truer than for most.

A senior lecturer in the microbiology department at SFU, Kovalyova turned to writing after claiming a couple of graduate degrees in chemistry and microbiology, interning for NASA, and working as a forensic analyst (which all sounds easy-peasy in comparison to the gruelling labour of writing).

In her debut collection, Specimen, Kovalyova turns her trained scientific eye to the creation of stories, shaping and observing words with the precision of a researcher growing something interesting in a petri dish.

Specimen is composed of eight short stories and one 140-page novella; Kovalyova is especially adept with the former (and probably more practised, too; “Mamochka”, the first story in the collection, was nominated for the 2012 Journey Prize).

Like her, many of Kovalyova’s characters are scientists, and she equips them with language that is both rigorous and beautiful; rather than visualizing spinning wheels, one character closes her eyes and imagines “the neurons firing away inside [her] frontal lobe”.

The stories themselves take different, sometimes strange forms. One, “Peptide p”, about a disease that affects children who eat lab-grown meat, is set up like a scientific paper, complete with abstract, materials, results, and discussion. Even when her stories are at their weirdest, though, Kovalyova writes characters with vivid personalities and plots with real tension; “Gdańsk”, which is simply a numbered list, still compels with its tale of a love story across the Iron Curtain.

The novella that finishes the collection, “The Blood Keeper”, follows a budding young Russian plant scientist to North Korea, where she pursues a period of field research at Pyongyang’s Botanical Gardens at the behest of her father, a Russian expat who works as an embalmer for the DPRK at the time of the death of Kim Il-Sung. The story is a slow burn, and the way Kovalyova conjures the repressed, tense atmosphere of Pyongyang is magical. But this tale, it turns out, is really about espionage, and the dramatic buildup is tossed aside when Kovalyova quickly pulls the rug out to explain what’s really going on. She would’ve benefited from a few more pages; it’s a story that could easily have grown into a novel.

But it’s a small complaint. Specimen’s original, odd, and compelling mix of sci-fi–flavoured literature proves Kovalyova’s experiment a significant one that surely deserves further testing.

Originally published in the Georgia Straight on June 17, 2015.

You can find a full archive of my Georgia Straight reviews here.