You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
Clichés don’t always work. Take, for example, a woman leaving the comfort zone of her home to go to a battle-torn country to escape her personal fears and ultimately find a love interest amidst the chaos. Love triangles always add another flavour to cliché. In many love stories, a diary is a must because it contains the memories and secrets of the forlorn lover; in our story, the diary takes the form of cassette tapes. Some clichés work excellently, though, because they are the elements of a historical novel and they manage to weave together fact and fiction.
I Will Die in a Foreign Land is the debut novel of Kalani Pickhart. Reading it was like listening to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; Pickhart necessarily “sacrifices” characters to redeem others, hoping that they can save their country, Ukraine, in turn.
The backdrop to the novel starts in November 2013 when Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych rejected a deal to integrate with the European Union, instead choosing to build a strong alliance with Russia. Many Ukrainians, who had found freedom since their separation from Russia in 1991, protested against Yanukovych’s decision. Protests erupted in the cities. Despite a violent crackdown, with disappearances and the torture of protesters and even journalists, more people joined in. Ultimately, in February 2014, Yanukovych fled and sought refuge in the Kremlin. A presidential election was held, but it did not stop the conflict. It was just the beginning of a war that is still ongoing.
A historical novel, I Will Die in a Foreign Land follows a number of stories. Katya is an American doctor with roots in Ukraine. She volunteers at a makeshift clinic in Saint Michael’s Monastery in Kyiv after her failed marriage and the death of her son. Misha, whose outlook on life was changed by his wife’s death, is an engineer and survivor of Chernobyl. Slava is a bisexual activist and a sex-trafficking survivor whose relationship with two journalists (Dascha, and the American, Adam) provides her with the opportunity to traverse a dangerous path to sexual identity but who ultimately finds her redemption in the United States. Aleksandr Ivanovich is the mysterious piano player who was a tortured former KGB agent who loved an enemy more than Mother Russia. He joins the protests wearing a balaclava to conceal his identity, as he was previously convicted of espionage for the Czech Republic after running away from Russia to be with Vera, a double agent for Russia and the Czech Republic. It is Aleksandr who owns the cassette tapes, addressed to his long-lost daughter, Ana.
Except for Katya’s, the lives of the other three main characters intertwine starting in Russia during Stalin’s reign of terror and weaving through the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, the chaos in the streets of Kyiv, memories of Chernobyl, and the babushkas who returned to their land despite the government’s warning of exposure to radiation.
Pickhart’s characters are alive. You can almost touch them and hear their unique voices. She perfectly fleshes out the individuality of the major characters and those around them with such precision that no one speaks or thinks the same. The movements and decisions of the characters follow real events of the times, making the novel appear like a documentary. By doing this she captures the reader’s interest, and a chronology of important events is listed in the book to help us better understand the flow of the narrative. For example, a page of the novel shows the names of all the passengers who perished when Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine on July 17, 2014.
Historical novels with war or conflict backdrops are nothing new. Leon Uris made a career out of writing historical fiction using the Palestinian and Israeli conflict in his novel Exodus (published in 1958) and went on to write about it further in some of his later works.
I Will Die in a Foreign Land follows a similar formula; in fact, the first few pages reminded me of Leon Uris’ writing but from a female perspective and in a more recent time.
The novel may appear to be a pseudo-documentary, which serves as a strategy to alert the attention of the readers to what is happening in Ukraine, both historically and in the present. (Despite the July 2020 ceasefire, there are still sporadic skirmishes between pro-Kremlin and Ukrainian forces.) Pickhart’s debut novel could be considered formulaic, but that does not diminish its importance in focusing our attention on Eastern Europe and the long struggle for Ukraine to achieve the freedom it rightfully deserves. I’m looking forward to her next novel; this one deserves a sequel.
I Will Die in a Foreign Land
By Kalani Pickhart
Two Dollar Radio, 326 pages