By Patricia Lightfoot
Two books that I found particularly engaging this year have a Ukrainian theme. The first one, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (translation into English by George Bird. Really.), is set in post-Soviet Ukraine, where writer Viktor Alekseyevich is trying to make a living. He is engaged to write the obituaries of notable citizens,“…deputies and gangsters, down to the cultural scene — that sort of person — while they’re still alive,” that is, before a series of untimely deaths takes place.
Initially friendless, Viktor begins to connect with others through his new occupation and through Misha, the equally solitary penguin he has taken in, because the zoo can no longer afford to feed its animals. There are trips to the frozen Dnieper for Misha to swim under the ice, and an ill-assorted group, including Misha and a small child, sees in the New Year in a dacha, courtesy of a lonely militiaman. Kurkov portrays a dark and lawless world, sometimes lightened with humour and moments of human warmth.
In A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka, the action takes place in England where Nadia’s family settled after the Second World War. Her mother now dead, Nadia, who is also estranged from her only sister, has to confront the fact that her 84-year-old father has fallen in love with a 36-year-old “glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee,” who explodes into their lives “like a fluffy pink grenade.” As Nadia observes the crises of this relationship, starting with the new bride’s demand for high-end consumer goods, such as the “civilized person’s Hoover,” that Nadia’s father’s cannot afford on his pension, schemes to have her new stepmother deported and listens to her father’s opus on the development of the tractor, she begins to understand the consequences of her family’s history and what happened during her family’s flight from the Ukraine. This story is told with a lot of humour and sympathy for all the protagonists.
I found The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin in Marnie Wellar’s little free library on Fifth Avenue, read it twice in succession and then put it back for someone else to enjoy, though I have since purchased my own e-copy. At Island Books on Alice Island, the unexpected arrival of a child does not necessarily bring redemption, but she certainly brings joy. An improbable decision is made by social services, the death of a young woman is a plot device and there is a risk of descent into cliché, given that the characters include a soft-hearted policeman with a large moustache who wishes to start a book club for the island’s police officers, but the author is too accomplished for that. The love of stories, and their relevance to the characters’ lives, is woven through the book. To quote A.J., “People tell boring lies about politics, God, and love. You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question, What is your favorite book?”