A city-dwelling executive heads home to take over his brother's gas station after his mysterious disappearance, but all he finds at home are mysteries and ghosts. The bleak industrial landscape of now-war-torn eastern Ukraine sets the stage for Voroshilovgrad, the Soviet-era name of the Ukranian city of Luhansk, mixing magical realism and exhilarating road novel in poetic, powerful, and expressive prose.
Wow, this is a difficult book to write about. Throughout the book I was reminded by Pedro Peramo by Juan Rulfo. The two novels focus on a man returning to a home town which is inhabited by ghosts. The similarity isn't simply a matter of sharing a central theme, but also in the way the writer disorientated me. The story is told from the point of view of the protagonist, Herman, who seems at times to be hallucinating or on drugs - or maybe he is just experiencing the surreal nature of life in his part of the world.
The novel is set in the lawless land of eastern Ukraine, where smugglers cross the Russian border with contraband electrical goods, guns, and petrol, and battle with farmers. It is a land where the gangsters are government officials, where refugees troop towards the freedom of Europe, and ghosts play football with the living. This world of black soil rich in crops, oil and the hidden relics of the German army's retreat from Stalin's forces is brilliantly evoked by the writer. The book veers from poetic lyricism to brutal realism. And sometimes we get both at the same time, a feat I would have thought impossible, but Zhadan pulls it off. The other element that might surprise you is the level of bizarre humour that runs through the book. There is an amazing gypsy funeral, even the hymn at which had me chuckling:
When the Lord takes you by the hand and leads you down the yellow brick road,
When you leave this strange country where the weather and utilities cause constant vexation,
When your young and handsome face yellows in photographs from your trip to Gurzof,
Our loving family, including all the sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, and more distant relations, will follow your lead.
The description refers to Voroshilovgrad as a road novel and the section at the back of the review copy I received referenced Easy Rider. The road in this novel is either full of potholes or made of yellow bricks. The story doesn't just refer to The Wizard of Oz, but shares some of its themes - going on a journey and finding your home, and the importance of friendship. The novel's plot isn't the most conventional and the ending is not as conclusive as one might expect, but these things are to be expected in the context of Herman's uncertain world.
I received a copy of this novel free from the publisher in return for a fair review.