Specimen dissects unquiet mysteries of the heart


By Irina Kovalyova

House of Anansi

256 pages; $19.95

Reviewed by Traci Skuce

Not long ago, I met a surgeon at a friend’s wedding. I asked him if, in opening the human body, he was ever inspired to write down insights about such revealed mystery. Not everyone, after all, gets to examine the dark spaces of the abdomen, say, or the heart. But he only shifted from foot to foot and scrunched his brow. “It’s all just routine procedure,” he said. Needless to say, his answer disappointed me.

There are, however, a legion of physicians and scientists who have felt compelled to marry the disciplines of science and literary art. And now Irina Kovalyova joins their ranks. Kovalyova has an impressive, science-heavy resume: a master’s degree in chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in microbiology from Queen’s, and she is currently a professor of molecular biology at Simon Fraser. She also holds an MFA in creative writing from UBC and has written Specimen, a collection of eight short stories and one novella.

In each of her short stories, Kovalyova investigates how science impacts human relationships. The daughter who discovers her biological dad is a sperm donor and sets out to meet him, the woman whose post-divorce grief is assuaged through Botox injections, and the Russion biology professor who must reconcile his son’s desire to transition to female.

Kovalyova approaches her work like a scientist. And by that I mean, she’s willing to experiment. Almost every story in this collection plays with form and I imagined Kovalyova entering her stories with a science-curious mind: What if I write a story like a clinical trial report? Or a story that splits, dividing the narrative into two physical columns? Or a story that harkens back to strange, nineteenth century experiments, but then twists into a modern email epistle? Or reads like a list and circles back on itself?

I was particularly delighted by the experimental “list” story. The story is entitled “Gdansk” and it begins with a school group crossing the Soviet border in November, 1989, the Berlin wall barely down (the psychological walls still there), and the borders just beginning to open. The story stays close to Katya, her observations of her host family, her crush and her love of science. Because this story is all about concision—each section is numbered and limited to two or three sentences (sometimes only a word), I felt a life sketched out and contained within tiny borders, filled in by the silence and white spaces between.

At other points in Kovalyova’s collection, the narrative experiments seem too contrived. Too controlled. This happens mildly in some of the other stories, but overtly in “The Big One.” A mother and her young daughter are driving up three underground parking stories. She has this thought: “What if, I think, the Big One happens today? The One everyone keeps talking about.” She meditates on her fear and then, lo and behold, the Big One strikes! It’s too bad, really, because the story is otherwise interesting and descriptive. The physical page split in two, just like the ground, with simultaneous text on either side of the line.

The final story, “The Blood Keeper,” a novella, is an intriguing read. Kovalyova does well with this longer form, fleshing out a complex narrative about a young Russian woman who travels to North Korea to work in the Botanical Gardens in Pyongyang. There are all the ingredients to drive a good plot forward: forbidden love, espionage and closed political borders. And yet it doesn’t read like a thriller, but instead of a young woman willing to probe the unquiet mysteries of the heart. Throughout Specimen, Kovalyova pushes boundaries, going beyond “routine procedures.” She offers readers a glimpse through a literary microscope, and into our own dark spaces.

Traci Skuce lives in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.