book of the month

Big politics, love and self-discovery in the novel “Ivan and Phoebe” by Oksana Lutsyshyna


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Chytomo is launching a series of reviews dedicated to the latest translations of Ukrainian authors and must-reads of Ukrainian history and culture. Each month Chytomo’s editorial team will select a book that reveals the most striking phenomena, figures, and stories of Ukrainian history and culture.

This installment highlights the largest student-led public demonstration prior to Ukraine’s declaration of independence and examines the impact of socio-political events on the lives of people caught up in a period of transformation. It also delves into themes of love, passion, fear, and self-discovery via Oksana Lutsyshyna’s novel Ivan and Phoebe, which is now available in an English translation by Nina Murray.

Historical context

The story told in Oksana Lutsyshyna’s novel Ivan and Phoebe is set during a critical period – the 1990s. In the three decades that have passed   since gaining independence, Ukraine has experienced many socio-political, economic, and cultural changes that have yet to be fully expressed. The Revolution of Dignity in 2014 marked a pivotal moment in the country’s history as it signaled a shift towards European integration and a strong desire to distance itself from Moscow. Prior to this, Ukrainian culture had remained overshadowed by Russian influence, struggled to compete for an audience and was consequently constrained in exploring vital issues.


At that time, the Soviet Union collapsed and its former republics gained independence. Of course, these processes did not happen in isolation. In Ukraine, they were not driven solely  by political forces but also by citizens with a national consciousness who wanted to establish historical justice, that is, the independence of their state. Therefore, in October 1990, the Revolution on Granite was ignited on Kyiv’s central square, a nonviolent civil disobedience movement involving dissidents, artists, representatives of opposition political forces and everyday citizens. It was a powerful expression of will that demonstrated the ability of a certain part of society, if not all Ukrainians, to fight for democratic values and national interests.

‘We will not eat or drink until we are out of the Union’

The characters

The protagonist of the book is Ivan, a young man who graduated from university, managed to take part in the Revolution on Granite, and then found himself under KGB surveillance. He somewhat impulsively married, and began a family life built on quarrels and unspoken reproaches. Essentially, the author of the novel puts an ordinary person at the center of the story, who, although able to join the ocean of protest and influence important socio-political processes, remains weak and confused both by historical changes and by the permanence of many things – family relationships, the mental peculiarities of the border town of Uzhhorod – that no revolution can seem to change.


Here it is important to discuss  the geography of Ivan and Phoebe. It has three important points: Lviv, the western city where Ivan studies, transforms, immerses himself in  contemporary Ukrainian culture, and becomes part of the protest movement; Kyiv, the capital, where Ivan demonstrates the strength of his spirit during actions of disobedience or hunger strikes; and Uzhhorod, the border town where he was born, where his parents live, and where Ivan eventually escapes from the fear of uncertainty in his own life, exacerbated by the pressure of the secret service.

The plot and more

As the story unfolds, Ivan continuously finds himself having to make a choice between these cities, essentially between the past and the future. Because to stay in Uzhhorod means to live under the unrelenting gaze of a very toxic mother, to meet childhood friends and see how time and the meaninglessness of existence quickly eat them away, to feel the suffocation of a city where everyone knows everyone…


Ivan’s situation is clear. He has to choose between staying in the past or forging his own path, much like the choice Ukraine faced at the time. But who is Phoebe? What is her role in the novel? Phoebe is Ivan’s girlfriend and later wife. Their relationship, bonded less by love than by despair, dissolves into hell after marriage. Ivan makes a terrible mistake – he stifles the creativity of Phoebe, who dreamed of becoming a poet. He destroys her poems and thus punishing an innocent individual for his lack of personal dreams and ambitions. Phoebe symbolizes a victim, a woman who is shaped first by her parents’ dislike and then by Ivan’s indifference. Although she is capable of protest and resistance.

Why is the book worth reading?

Thus, Ivan and Phoebe is a novel about a revolution of consciousness triggered by very different events, both global and personal. This is a book about the choices we make, even if we decide to just go with the flow of life. It is about cruelty, guilt, love, passion – about many things, and most importantly, about Ukraine of the recent past, despite or because of which it has become what it is today.


Oksana Lutsyshyna is a Ukrainian writer, translator, and literary critic. She is a member of PEN Ukraine. She made her debut with a collection of poems in 1997. In Ukraine, the novel “Ivan and Phoebe” was published in 2019 and received two prestigious Ukrainian awards: Lviv – UNESCO City of Literature Award and the Shevchenko National Prize. The English translation of the novel was published on June 6 by Deep Vellum Publishing.


The publication is a part of the “Chytomo Picks: New Books from Ukraine” project. The materials have been prepared with the assistance of the Ukrainian Book Institute at the expense of the state budget. The author’s opinion may not coincide with the official position of the Ukrainian Book Institute.