Baba Dunja’s Last Love – Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)

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When the reactor happened, I counted myself among those who got off lightly. My children were safe, my husband wasn’t going to live much longer anyway, and my flesh was already toughened. And anyway, I was prepared to die. My work had taught me always to keep that possibility in mind so as never to be surprised.

Baba Dunja lives in Tschernowo, Ukraine. The last to leave when the reactor exploded and first to return when she decided she wanted to go home. She grows her own fruit and vegetables and cooks fresh food every day.

She’s no longer the only resident: there’s a small community now, including Marja, who lives next door but is struggling with the quiet; cancer-ridden, Petrow, and the Gavrilows, educated, middle-class snobs. It soon becomes clear though that the residents look to Baba Djuna as a default leader. She’s tough, outspoken and capable of looking after them all, regardless of her age.

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But Baba Djuna sacrificed something when she returned to Tschernowo, ignoring her daughter, Irina’s pleas:

There was one thing we didn’t talk about. When something is particularly important, you don’t talk about it. Irina has a daughter, and I have a granddaughter, who goes by the very pretty name of Laura. No girls are named Laura around here, only my granddaughter who I have never seen. When I went back to the village, Laura had just turned one. When I went back home, I knew I would never see her.

When a stranger arrives in Tschernowo, a change takes place that has an enormous effect on the villagers, and particularly Baba Djuna. Shortly afterwards she begins to write to Irina.

Baba Djuna’s a great character. She gets on with the life she’s chosen with a sense of purpose and a dollop of humour. She has progressive views for someone of her generation too, suggesting that she shouldn’t have got married, she should have just raised her children alone and that she’s glad she never had the burden of beauty. She also had a job as a nurse before the disaster. It was a joy to read a book with an old female protagonist and particularly one who had plenty of spark.

Baba Djuna’s Last Love is the second book I’ve read by Alina Bronsky and she’s fast becoming a favourite of mine. She’s not afraid to write protagonists who are sharp in more ways than one, nor is she afraid to tackle difficult subjects. Baba Djuna’s Last Love packs a punch in what’s a very short space. This is a novella worth looking out for and a good introduction to Bronsky’s work if you’re yet to discover this brilliant writer.

 

 

Thanks to Europa Editions for the review copy.

Book Lists for All Humans #2

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I didn’t expect it to be so soon but here we are, courtesy of this list of Top 10 Books to Make You a Better Person in The Guardian. Four white men (sounding good so far, right?), three men of colour, three white women. Verdict = could do better (the pun wasn’t intended but I’ll take it).

There’s a problem with this list because I don’t know what making someone a ‘better’ person means. Who decides the criteria?

I’ve gone for books that made me think about the world differently (and avoided any I included in list #1 although they’re all relevant too); feel free to interpret it in your own way and leave your suggestions in the comments.

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay
Haiti, kidnapping, rape, privilege, poverty

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman
Dystopia, AAVE, disease, love, war, religion

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta
Love, religion, ‘cures’ for homosexuality, Nigeria, women

Just Call Me Superhero – Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)
Disability, friendship, love, sexuality

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo
Counterfactual slave narrative, race reversal

The Repercussions – Catherine Hall
War photography, Afghanistan, love, women, history

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik
Hijab, dating, religion, family, writing

Tell No Tales – Eva Dolan
Far right, immigration, politics, crime, corruption

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah
Race, class, albino, women in prison, perspective

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney
Working class, feminism, religion, crime, coming of age

(Links to my reviews.)

 

Just Call Me Superhero – Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)

“I never want to see myself again. Do you understand – never…I’m fine with it. I’m living a fulfilled life…I even keep finding girls who are willing to try to be with me despite my face.”

Marek is 17. Mauled by a rottweiler, he’s had a number of operations to rebuild his face, a face he now refuses to look at and partially covers by permanently wearing sunglasses. The novel begins when he arrives at a group he’s been told is a private tutorial session. When he sees he’s arrived at a door marked Family Services Center: Meditation Room he turns to leave only to see a girl he likes the look of. He stays and returns the following week, despite describing it to Claudia, his mother, as ‘a goddam support group for cripples with some pathetic wannabe showman in charge’.

There were six of us. Aside from me and the girl, there was a long-haired guy with a prosthetic leg, an amorphous doughy figure with a froth of red hair on his or her head (with no apparent disability), a long-legged drag queen with a nervous gaze that bounced around the room, and a frowning arrogant-looking pretty-boy who was wearing sunglasses like mine. Though mine were certainly pricier. He was the only one who didn’t turn his face in my direction.

The third week, when the guru brings up Marek’s accident, he walks out and doesn’t return for week four. He doesn’t get out that easily though as Marlon (the ‘pretty boy’) and Fredrick (the ‘amorphous doughy figure’) arrive at his house to inform him that the guru wants to film them.

“He might make a proper film about us. A documentary about a group of disabled people. Insights that could break down prejudice, understand?”

Marek returns to the group who then organise a week away to work on the film, a week where tensions are high and disaster strikes Marek’s family, forcing him to deal with a number of big issues.

Just Call Me Superhero is one of those rare novels that flows easily (credit to the translator there too), is compelling and tackles important ideas without ever patronising the reader or becoming overbearing. That Bronsky has chosen to tell the story in first person through the eyes of Marek helps with this. As Janne says to him:

“You’re so young and yet already such an asshole.”

He’s a seventeen-year-old boy coming to terms with the permanent disfigurement of a face which used to be handsome. He needs to adjust to the physical changes as well as working out how to interact with new people having rejected those he knew prior to the accident.

Bronsky shows the reactions people have to Marek through his eyes; she also allows us to access his head, therefore letting us make our own decisions about the way the disfigurement has affected him. The group of people he refers to as ‘cripples’ Bronsky also shows as people. There are no significant statements regarding disability or sexuality merely a group of people behaving like people, essentially by reading the book, we watch the film that Richard wants the guru to make.

There is so much more I could say about this novel, but once we get into the tragedy that befalls Marek’s family, I’d be spoiling a huge chunk of the book. Let’s just say: aren’t families complex and interesting? Don’t you learn a huge amount from dealing with them?

Just Call Me Superhero is a very good novel. Bronsky makes writing look easy: the voice is consistent and believable and the plot twists and turns in interesting ways, some of which are shocking, designed – I think – to challenge lazy assumptions about a variety of people. This is Bronsky’s third novel, although it’s the first I’ve read. I’ll be seeking out the others now; she’s a very interesting writer indeed.

If you are in or near London on Saturday, Alina Bronsky is in conversation with Jenny Downham at the Goethe Institut. More details here.

Thanks to Europa Editions for the review copy.