SPECIMEN stories by Irina Kovalyova (Anansi), 292 pages, $19.95 paper. Rating: NNNN
I love it when impressive new work by a debut writer takes me by surprise. That's how I experienced this series of fascinating short stories by Irina Kovalyova.
Almost all them tap her expertise as a molecular biologist. The Ecstasy Of Edgar Alabaster weaves in themes from A.S. Byatt's Angels And Insects to probe the medical effects of hypnosis. It's as complex as it sounds, yet riveting at the same time.
Sometimes, Kovalyova crafts terrifying cautionary tales. In The Side Effects, she satirizes a doctor's zeal for administering botox injections, and in Peptide p, the most horrifying story - and the best one - children are used by unusually cruel researchers to study tainted meat.
She's also a fearless experimenter. Peptide p takes the form of a research paper. Gdansk, about 10 communist students on a cultural exchange to the West, is written as a series of numbered statements. And The Big One's narrative features dialogue and one character's unspoken thoughts on the page at once.
Don't assume that these stylistic innovations or the scientific nature of the content take away from the work's emotional power. Kovalyova's taut prose - not a word is wasted - tells stories about fear, ambition and love.
She's not perfect. The title tale, about a woman who discovers she's the product of a sperm donor, feels more like an anecdote than a closely constructed story.
And closing novella The Blood Keeper, a political thriller in which a Russian botanist goes to work in North Korea and falls in love with her supervisor, comes to too tidy a conclusion by means of a whack of exposition - not unlike a mystery in which the detective puts all the pieces together in three quick pages. You just wish an editor had told her to write two more stories for this collection and finish The Blood Keeper as a proper novel.
But there's no doubt great things are coming from this writer. Watch out for her.