The Genius Under the Table is bleak but also strangely cozy at times. It’s hopeful, heartbreaking, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and may stir up tender feelings for your own strange family.
Eugene (Yevgeny) is a child growing up behind the Iron Curtain. His family shares a kitchen and bathroom with several families, including a spy who’s always lurking in the corner of the kitchen. Eugene is bursting with questions - Why is his grandfather’s face cut out of all the family pictures? Why doesn’t anyone want to talk about defecting (which is too close to the word defecating?) And why is poetry respected but also dangerous?
Each night, before his family (mom, dad, grandma, brother) goes to sleep, all the furniture is rearranged, and Eugene’s cot is set up underneath the table. This is where he creates drawings that help him chew on all the questions he has. Both parents really want him to be the best at something. Eugene thinks that because he doesn’t initially have a talent like his brother, Victor, his parents do not love him. He struggles but eventually comes to understand that being the best at something is his only chance to have a higher-quality life and a greater chance at surviving and thriving. Though his age isn’t always clear to me, it feels like he grows up really fast, and his perspective of his parents changes with just a mere flip of pages.
Though his drawings sometimes interrupt the text, there were a few illustrations that had me laughing out loud. Somewhere around the middle of the book I realized just how much I was enjoying his skill for creating unique facial expressions. His love for his family shines through most in his illustrations.
I think this is a great book for anyone really, even though it’s intended for kids. Prior to reading this, I didn’t know how precious a stick of gum was, how hard it was to acquire books during the cold war in the USSR, or what a bones record was. While reading this, I kept sharing snippets with family and friends of all ages. Our conversations continue, even after I was slapped by the heartbreaking ending, haunted by the black page, and swimming in murky gratitude for my privileged life.