22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
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The first sentence in this novel is six words long: "Not today, she says to herself." The rest of the page, 265 words more, is the second. It takes a total of only thirty-three sentences to carry the reader though the first ten pages. That tells you something about the book. It's highly unconventional in its structure and syntax, it's written by a poet, and it reads something close to `stream of consciousness.' Does it work here? Yes, it does, for Zabuzhko has an original voice and she writes of experiences common to more women than we men would like to admit exist.
As much as anything, this book is a long letting loose of emotion following a sexually intense but ultimately abusive relationship with a painter named Mykhola. She knew Mykhola was trouble the first time she met him. As he talked to her, setting up his later seduction of her, he casually twisted her fingers back almost to the breaking point, establishing his dominance of her while inflicting gratuitous pain. Later he progressed to verbal abuse and threats and he burned her with cigarettes. Hyper-charged fragments of Zabuzhko's poetry are interspersed throughout the book, providing counterpoint to the story of sexual enthrallment and abuse she is telling:
Something has shifted in the world:
someone was crying
Out my name at night as though
from a torture chamber
And someone rustled leaves on the porch,
Tossed and turned, and could not fall asleep:
I was learning the lessons of parting....
Zabuzhko flings out one metaphor after another, writing prose like a poet writes poetry. Some of them work, some don't, but the effect builds up, creating a dense, allusive, emotionally intent portrait of a woman and what has befallen her in a doomed relationship. (Zabuzhko's troubles don't end with the painter. She wants to be seen as a person but repeatedly falls into relationships where she is diminished.) The rush of poetized language she creates is a kind of hyperbolic venting. Some passages fail: overwritten, clunkiy, awkward use of imagery. Why, for instance, on page 15, does "we" transmute into "his or her" twice over, in the same passage, and why use "its own life" when the pronoun signifies not an `it,' but "hundreds of men"? But these are trivial excesses, or errors, in a book that deliberately courts disaster on every page, but by virtue of the poet's clearheaded view of herself and her control of her language, never stops moving forward, and ultimately, creates a wholly original and highly affecting portrait of the complicated creature that was Oksana Zabuzhko in her mid-thirties, when this novel was written.
SECOND THOUGHTS After reading Roger Brunyate's correspondence with me concerning the book, I began having second thoughts about having assigned the book five stars so I reread large chunks of it. I think Roger is right: it is too uneven to merit five stars. So I have changed my rating to four stars. I still believe it is highly original and it will probably be one of the handful of books I will recommend to friends at the end of the year.
Part of the reason is the theme running through it that can roughly be summarized as follows: I come from a nation with a long history of oppression, moral and well as political; oppression bleeds away the sense of joy; sex without joy cannot long endure as love; thus my country's history of oppression, and the oppression with which I grew up have robbed me of love, making crucial forms of emotional authenticity and personal identity problematic for me. This is also the theme lying beneath Milan Kundera's phenomenal The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by the way. I'm no expert on eastern European literature (and psyches) but in 2009, I reviewed a memoir by a Bulgarian poet, Kapka Kassabova, entitled Street Without a Name. Both Zabuzhko and Kassabova point to ways that their separate countries' histories of oppression deformed the people. Street Without a Name, by the way, is a fascinating read, and at times, hilariously funny. And Kundera's Book is, in my mind, one of the best, if not THE best, book he has written.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
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the modern circuitous literary novel with a tradition all its own, at least since ford maddox ford's Good Soldier, a sufficient length of time to have become a genre, should cause wonder why a novel this well written, entertaining, and evocative of so many literary luminaries, published in the ukraine in 1994, written in pittsburgh with the speed of light in less than four months, took so long to find a way to readers of english. experimentalism and a depressed character are not the answers. had there been a translator of the ukrainian language ready to take on the task, we would not be getting the news so late.
the telling of a love story on the skids. she's a poet and professor and he's a painter. they knew each other in kyiv, ukraine. she arrived in cambridge, mass first, a year later he followed. the relationship did not work out. there's life in the usa to blame, there's ukraine, there's her childhood, there's her father's past of a slave's existence under soviet rule.
clotted words, a slow onrush of run on sentences. paragraphs open to close pages later. the narrator, switches voice when speaking about herself from first person to third person, scarcely signaling, running her novella length monologue without chapter break willy nilly present to past, scenes spoken as remembered, as they make sense, as they fit her depression, cambridge, kyiv, jerusalem. picking up speed, her tone keens and screams like lina wertmueller films, like jazz novels by black writers in the 60s and 70s, hushed from literary memory (find clarence major's All-Night Visitors and carlene hatcher polite's The Flagellants, for examples).
so many similarities between oksana the narrator and oksana the author of Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, philip roth's The Counterlife is never far from thought: where does fact end and fiction begin?
within the pages, oksana reads toni morrison and garcia marquez, and she paraphrases the first lines of Ecclesiastes and The Dunio Elegies. like most cosmopolitans, she remains loyal to her homeland: `...the Ukrainian choice is a choice between nonexistence and an existence that kills you, and that all of our hapless literature is merely a cry of someone pinned down by a beam in a building after an earthquake - I'm here! I'm still alive! - but unfortunately, the rescue teams are taking their time ...'
so much goes wrong in life, but she endures and observes in small rooms and the spaces of the place, the country, everyone wants to come to: ...the open expanse, prairies without cowboys, a light taste of madness, which flickers among the nighttime flashes of billboards: the mind, frightened of its own creation, because this civilization is entirely man-made and that's why you've got the somnambulant's aching longing of the saxophone, poured like the light of the moon over the desert, the ... voice of a jazz-club singer, which pulls your soul out of your body with each languorous twist: I'm alone in this big city ... we are all alone here, free and alone, it's wonderful - to build your life on your own, it's frightening - to build your life on your own, you'll see up close the faces brought together, the hues and tints ... ` and all the rest of it.
the author, oksana zabuzhko, in interview accepts the comparison of her work to that of milan kundera. from this side of the ocean, to start with, we might suggest jack kerouac.