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.
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.