I’ve been letting this story marinate in my mind for two weeks, because it’s that good, that original, that aware. Anya is a woman who identifies as lesbian, but she is not out in every setting, including the one where her body and mind are in this novel. She is a young Russian woman beginning a sentence for ten days’ detention. She attended a protest and when it was broken up, others got released and Anya did not. She walks into a large cell full of bunks, radio running all day long with music she hates and she meets her cellmates in Women’s Cell Number 3. Anya is very bright, college educated, with a wealthy father who is divorced from her mother. He is only intermittently involved with Anya. Her relationship with her mother is decent but complicated.
To set the stage for what it means to be in a Russian detention center we quickly learn that three of Anya’s cellmates are in for driving without a license. One for not paying alimony. One for swearing at a cop. So, there are five of them and Anya makes six. For much of her stay, she interacts with and observes them. She has long periods when she thinks about pieces of her life, her closest friends, her crushes, her college experiences, her mistakes. Some memories are funny. Many are unusual. Most reflect the childhood and college years of a young girl struggling somewhat with her identity and how to “be” in the world. The monotony of being in jail for ten days and the need for the small comforts of an occasional hot shower and phone time each day are palpable. The fact that on some shifts, the staff is at least decent and on others they are authoritarian and unhelpful becomes part of the emotional layers this book just adds on steadily.
Partway through her sentence, Anya goes what we might call stir crazy, beginning to have visions or hallucinations that might be dreams, but take up her thoughts for periods of time. Mostly, she eats the food which, while salty is better than she thought it would be and reads and just…. experiences all of this. Yarmysh is fully inside both Anya’s head and creates for her characters in Women’s Cell Number 3 unlike any Anya has met before. She is not “out” with them. One of her cellmates is lesbian. One seems mentally ill. One is very obviously obsessed with herself, spoiled. One has served hard time in the past. Tea is made from water kept in a hot water bottle. Everyone seems to smoke. Anya quit awhile ago. There’s a window that can be opened to the yard.
Time creeps along, as Anya learns pieces of information about each of her cellmates. Their stories both invade her thoughts and are apart from her. She is as alone as can be even though the six women are together through most of this book. This is a totally engrossing, oddly fast paced novel with a complex, interesting character in Anya. I personally like her a lot and root for her. But she’s made mistakes and done some unlikeable things. She has also been at times a victim of someone else’s highly unlikeable behavior. She examines these past moments/periods as dispassionately as she considers her cellmates. She copes, except when intrusive thoughts come. It is not normal to be in jail. It is something you adjust to and live through. And this is only ten days, but Yarmysh paints for us an engrossing personal experience. Everything is shared through Anya’s perspective and it is all fascinating. You end up wanting to know what happens next with every single person, even if Anya doesn’t want to know more than what she has learned. The writing is original and very visual because it’s all written in third person omniscient. Ten days in Women’s Cell Number 3. It’s well worth spending the time to read this hard, yet lyrical book. Highly recommend.