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Specimen

by Irina Kovalyova

It’s no surprise to learn from Irina Koval-yova’s author bio that she is a senior lecturer in Simon Fraser University’s department of molecular biology and biochemistry. Or that she once interned for NASA. Or that she has a doctorate in microbiology. Intelligence jumps from every page of her debut collection, composed of eight short stories and one novella.

Specimen Kovalyova

Kovalyova’s academic background surely aided the Russian-born, Vancouver-based writer in crafting convincing characters who work as botanists in North Korea and archivists at physics institutions. It must also have informed the book’s theme of attempting to render life’s unknowables knowable through study, data analysis, and other means of information gathering. However, no school could instill in someone the innate gifts Kovalyova possesses.

First and foremost, she is a great storyteller – astonishingly skilled at both traditional and experimental narrative. “The Ecstasy of Edgar Alabaster” has an exquisitely Victorian sensibility, and lets the author shine a light into the most perverse corners of her imagination. More experimental is “Peptide p,” the most science fiction of the lot, presented as a research paper written by scientists studying heart disease through chilling experiments on children. The mock scientific essay comes complete with abstract, materials and methods, figures, and results.

Issues of biology – genetics, race, disease – are often at the root of the characters’ conflicts, but Kovalyova turns these subjects into very human, authentic disconnections between people who (mostly) love each other. Throughout, she balances cool rationalism with hot emotion. The writing is immediate, bold, and original. No wasted words. Zero flab. Lean, powerful dialogue.

Only the novella, “The Blood Keeper,” missteps, morphing from an engrossing story of forbidden love into an over-the-top tale of high-stakes espionage and political rebellion that sinks like a brick due to lengthy rounds of dizzying exposition and uncharacteristic melodrama. Or is this just another one of Kovalyova’s experiments – an ambitious attempt at absurdism?