The one thing you can be sure of when reading Alina Bronsky is that she never writes the same novel twice. And that’s probably because her main protagonists are as different as different can be. While Baba Dunja is probably of the same generation as Rosa from The Sharpest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, any similarity stops there. Because while Rosa, who lives in Germany, is a completely delusional matriarchal tyrant, Baba Dunja, after some years abroad, has voluntarily left her daughter and gradndaughter behind and returned to the place in the Ukraine that she calls home. That Tschernowo is located in the nuclear exclusion zone does not lessen its pull on her.
She is of an age when it doesn’t matter, knowing that what will come, will come anyway. And so, she returns to her abandoned, former home. Others, seeking a peaceful refuge (they’re not going to be followed into “the death zone”), move in also. An old man proposes marriage, but Baba Dunja wants nothing to do with this idea. (Memories of her first husband let us know exactly why she has never countenanced marriage again.) She enjoys living simply, content to receive gifts from her family in Germany, imagining them enjoying a life more privileged than the one she had. She loves growing her own fruit and vegetables, worrying not in the slightest about the contamination in the soil. Willing to tolerate bouts of loneliness in order to live out her remaining days in peace and quiet …
… until a stranger with dubious motives arrives with his young child in tow. Of course, like all good literary outsiders, he is there to create havoc. Oh, and how!
Baba Dunja’s world is turned upside down – again. And when circumstances lead to her daughter visiting, so too are her sentimental conceptions of her family in Germany. Otherwise she is remarkably pragmatic and matter-of-fact. Her narrative voice is also infused with a endearing dry wit. While it seems everyone and everything conspire to uproot her, Baba Dunja is not to be thwarted. After all, home is where the heart is.