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books about war
Women at war: Acclaimed Ukrainian novel bridges fragility, mysticism and resilience09.09.2023
The presence of women in literature surprises no one today. But there are still topics where women’s voices are underrepresented. War is one such topic. Shield maidens, of course, appear in fantasy and sci-fi books, but they seem out of place in contemporary realistic literature. The reason is simple — countries which are engulfed by conflict remain on the periphery of cultural discourse. WWII remains the last war depicted in European literature, and timeless European classics still show us the war mainly as a man’s domain.
One of the most compelling Ukrainian novels about the Russia-Ukraine war tells the story of a woman, and that is the novel “Daughter” which was recently shortlisted for the Angelus Central European Literature Award. This novel tells the story of a slight, delicate woman who volunteers in the Russia-Ukraine war, drives from one place to another along the war torn roads of Donetsk, journeying to hell and back multiple times. Hailed as one of the finest Ukrainian novels of the last few years, the book garnered prestigious Ukrainian awards such as BBC Book of the Year in 2019 and Shevchenko National Prize in 2022. Its popularity is evident: according to book-based social web site Goodreads, Tamara Duda (pen name Tamara Horikha Zernia), the author of “Daughter”, has one of the highest ratings among many Ukrainian writers. But what is it about this book that captivates readers so profoundly?
Girl with a stained-glass window
“Daughter” is based on actual events but isn’t strictly a nonfiction narrative. There’s lots of action, mysticism and a beautifully crafted love story, making the book both thrilling and captivating.
We meet the heroine of the book long before the beginning of the war. But don’t be mistaken into thinking her pre-war life was one of serene tranquility. Quite the contrary. The “daughter” had a father who drank, she couldn’t remember her mother, and was bereft of friends or romantic relationships. She was nice, poor and inconspicuous. So much so that her actual name is scarcely mentioned throughout the novel. And then our heroine discovers an extraordinary talent for creating stained-glass windows, a unique art that demands crafting images on a fragile material — glass.
It is interesting that behind the biography of the heroine, and her talent for stained-glass window making, a powerful metaphor for Ukraine emerges. It paints the picture of a nation much like an impoverished orphan, wandering aimlessly until it finds its rightful place under the sun. Since gaining independence,Ukraine has faced its share of tribulations. Foreigners grappled with recognizing its identity, and its history and art seemed to be crafted on fragile foundations, shattered multiple times over the last three centuries.
The onset of the Russia-Ukraine war breaks the stained-glass window of Ukrainian reality anew. Yet, Daughter neither flees from Donetsk, nor seeks refuge far away from home. She chooses to defend her home with all her strength.
Witchcraft at war
Are mystic elements appropriate in a novel about war? More than you might imagine. The main character of the novel possesses the supernatural abilities of a witch. She can enter a bar and momentarily perceive the imminent death of unsuspecting patrons. On one occasion, while transporting someone dear to her, she suddenly recites a life-saving spell. Sometimes she is asked, jokingly, to linger at some locations because it is believed that where she stands, enemies do not shoot and misfortune is kept at bay. Ghosts appear near the girl to protect her.
In war zones the veil between the world of the living and the dead seems increasingly permeable. No wonder all the otherworldly demons emerge , and that the only thing that can save soldiers from deadly wounds is the untamed power of a word by a witch.
Why does the mystical feel so organic in “Daughter”? At the very beginning of the war, Ukraine found itself lacking adequate global support. The only thing we could hope for was to rely on ourselves and “otherworldly” forces. After all, in dire straights, who better to provide protection than mighty ancestors or benevolent guardian spirits?
Moreover , these supernatural aspects of Daughter resonate with a theme of many many Ukrainian literary classics. The robust romantic tradition in Ukrainian literature produced many heroines skilled in concocting love potions or at least effective curses. Recall the otherworldly prose of Mykola Gogol, the stories by Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovyanenko (Ukrainian prose writer, literary critic, publisher and playwright), and many other works. It would be a shame not to use these ancient skills and apply them in a critical situation.
An everyday life of a woman in a war
Another serious topic explored in “Daughter” is the role of women in wartime. It isn’t just the novel’s main character navigating a Donetsk engulfed in flames— other women are there too. Notably, the heroine does not take part in the hostilities. She is neither a shield maiden, nor an Amazon. She walks the destroyed roads of Donetsk, a cityscape transformed into a desolate wasteland by the enemies, seeking glimpses of life amidst the devastation.
Daughter rescues a teenager who has been raped in basements for many days. She brings food and warm clothes to those who need it. And finally, she gathers all the abandoned pets in the city in her apartment to feed them. She reminds us of Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of home and domesticity, often depicted as a cat. Indeed, it seems that every cat in the the ruined city of Donetsk cuddles near Daughter’s feet, and all living civilian creatures in Donetsk are drawn to her as the goddess of life.
Daughter evokes the archetype of the protective mother, a figure whose image is familiar from all ancient Ukrainian orthodox churches. Whatever hard times Ukrainians have to endure, she watches over them and tries to protect them with her delicate arms.
Tamara Duda (pen name Tamara Horikha Zernya) is Ukrainian author and translator, is also well-known by her volunteer activity. Daughter is her first novel published in Ukrainian and English languages by the Bilka Publishing house. In 2021 the novel won the Taras Shevchenko National Prize.
The events of the novel unfold in 2014 in Donetsk which soon becomes the epicentre of events. Donetsk city is occupied now.
“Daughter” is available in English thanks to Mosaic Press
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.
This publication is sponsored by the Chytomo’s Patreon community
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