Olga Zilberbourg

Barrelhouse Reviews: Like Water by Olga Zilberbourg

Review by Alyssa Gillon


WTAW Press (2019)

184 pages, $16.95

“You go through diapers like water,” my mother observed during her recent visit. She was sitting inches from my copy of Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water and Other Stories. I studied her face for irony, but no subtle joke. She just meant “Wow these babies shit a lot and we are drowning in it the way one typically drowns in water.”

Like Water contains 52 stories of varying length. Stories should be enjoyed one per sitting, with time to savor after each. Many of them contain layered perspectives, and Zilberbourg focuses particularly on communication in its moment of breakdown. Those moments benefit from unfolding time. "Rubicon" opens the collection, setting the pace--fast, active reading time with extended mental work--and a magical vibe. Characters experience time slips and revisit decisions that mark moments of no return. 

Many of the stories in Like Water prod parent/child relationships, several through direct and failed conversations between a mother and daughter, others through allegorical tales. “Stroller Selection” pinpoints the overblown feelings that can blossom from the most mundane parental decision. Who cares what color your stroller is? The awful association that the color orange draws for the mother in the story makes it matter a lot. “Dandelion” combines writing life and motherhood in a way I find really familiar. I always say that sending out short stories is like taking a baby and oiling him up, pep-talking him to take on the world. Patting him on the head, pushing him out there for surefire obliteration. Zilberbourg said it a lot better in her story. 

I don’t think it’s a stretch to call the collection heavily autobiographical. I read the stories. I read the blurbs and reviews and the author’s bio. I can put two and two together. Mother/daughter stuff, immigration to California from Stalingrad-era Russia, writerly life and ambition. This collection is an insider’s view. Zilberbourg is writing on topics that she knows intimately.

As such, Zilberbourg’s characters struggle to communicate cross-culturally, bridge generational divides, and negotiate love battles. “A Bear’s Tune” follows the sad trajectory of a fight between lovers with an unbalanced emotional dynamic. In this situation, one partner cares more, and a confusing argument leaves both parties hurt and alienated. At the end, one feels “I want you to love me enough to know what I want” and the other is lost and baffled. Sad for their partner’s pain, but inevitably way better off than the sorry soul cursed to love more. An electricity exists in this particular kind of communication void, a partner feeling mismatched in their feeling. 

Many Like Water characters struggle to see their own flaws while readily pointing out unacceptable behavior in others. In “Cream and Sugar” a mother complains about odd, petty behaviors of Americans at an airport coffee shop, while serious violence is happening in Odessa, where she’s happily and insistently heading home. “Cream and Sugar,” like many stories in this collection, contains layered narratives and failed conversations that encourage reader participation.

In the title story, the narrator revisits some past decisions that have shaped her present. The story posits the relationship between availability and need, but it goes a lot farther. She compares her life choices and unquestioned preferences to her grandparents' avoidance of water in favor of tea. Doctors advise the old couple to drink water, but in their low tolerance for it, they manage barely a mug a day between the two of them. They take sips in secret, so that each partner can deny stepping outside of the well-worn path of years spent together.

"Like Water" ends, "I've grown used to something else by now, but what if I dared? What if I did what so many of my students do at eighteen or twenty? Namely, experiment. Try out a new identity. I'm terrified, but I also can't pretend I don't understand. Water is life."

Was my initial interpretation of Mom’s comment wrong, another failed maternal cry across the chasm of human understanding? After a life of choosing between water or tea, many  drinkers are left with a staunch preference for one or the other. Water to a tea person is an unlived life resulting from unchosen options, the pool of possibilities shrinking as the drinker goes on choosing tea over water. At some point the water drinker may arrive at a different perspective than the tea person, though they were companions who diverged only once. Choosing to love one person, leaving a country, becoming a parent--all of these decisions may make the drinker prefer tea so much that, squinting across the chasm at those drinking it, water seems a strange and wonderful choice.

Alyssa Gillon writes and hikes in Oregon. You can find more of her stuff at 3AM, apt, and Atticus Review.