Tuesday, November 29

I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart review – the roots of the Ukraine-Russia war | fiction

The Russo-Ukrainian war did not start with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The conflict goes back to 2014 and the so-called Revolution of Dignity, when after months of protest against a corrupt Ukrainian government strengthening ties with Vladimir Putin, Kyiv erupted in violent clashes that culminated in the deaths of more than 100 protesters and the removal of the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. This victory was short-lived: Russia quickly moved to annex Crimea and send in support for pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donbas and Luhansk.

American author Kalani Pickhart’s powerful debut novel, I Will Die in a Foreign Land, returns to the explosive energy that immediately preceded that outbreak of war, showing us characters who each, in their own way, contribute to the Revolution of Dignity. Pickhart homes in on her characters’ individual struggles and widens the shot in turn, to encompass the whole conflagration and the sequence of ruins it left behind it. It is an impressive feat of empathy, for although Pickhart did travel to Kyiv and consult with many Ukrainian authors and scholars, she is not Ukrainian (or Ukrainian-American) herself.

The book features four main characters, and although each intersects with everyone else, there are two main pairings: Katya and Misha, and Dascha and Slava. Katya is a doctor who has come from Boston at the start of 2014 to volunteer at the impromptu clinic at St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, the bells of which have just rung in alarm for the first time in 800 years. In the novel’s opening pages, we see her treat Ella Misha, who has suffered a possible concussion at the hands of the Berkut, the notoriously ruthless Ukrainian riot police.

Misha is a kind of depressive and widower unable to leave his Chornobyl past behind. He is brought to the monastery by Slava, his sometime lover of him, now more like a sister to him. Slava is an unstoppable warrior who has been arrested many times for protesting for women’s rights, painting “UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL” on her naked belly. She finds her match for her in Dascha, a film-maker and journalist originally from Crimea. The book’s political debates occur between these women, who soon fall in love. Dascha becomes Slava’s muse, but not for long: midway through, Dascha is disappeared.

As is already obvious, Pickhart’s novel takes in not only the current war, but also issues such as sexual violence and the legacy of Chornobyl. It demonstrates the impossibility of purity in the real world, through each of its characters, but perhaps most of all in the Captain, the former KGB agent turned revolutionary who might be considered the book’s fifth protagonist.

In this novel about the fight for a fatherland, the relationships between fathers and mothers and their children are spotlit in sometimes shocking ways. Katya has recently lost her five-year-old boy to heart failure, and this loss has unraveled her marriage to her; her eventual encounter de ella with Misha’s mother will give rise to passages of unpredictable poignancy. Equally moving and surprising are the audio cassettes left behind by the Captain, addressed to a daughter whose whereabouts is unknown to him (and, at first, to us). Meanwhile, there are the elderly parents forced by Soviet-engineered famine in the 1930s to eat their own children, and Slava, sold into sexual slavery by her mother de ella as punishment for adolescent sins.

I Will Die in a Foreign Land is also overwhelmingly full of music: the Captain’s piano playing that sustains protesters; the bells of the monastery; and through the novel’s choral structure, a swirl of private melodies that come together in surprising harmony from start to finish. The title itself comes from a western Ukrainian song, traditionally performed by Kobzari, the wandering bards “liquidated” by Stalin in 1932. Their ghosts are ever-present in this rich, multilayered story. It will resonate with a wide range of readers, and provide illuminating insight for those hoping to learn more about the current conflict.

I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart is published by Doubleday (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


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