Lucky Breaks by Ukrainian writer and photojournalist, Yevgenia Belorusets in translation of Eugene Ostashevsky is a collection of vignettes accompanied by a series of black and white photos taken by the author herself and placed carefully within the text. Even though these photographs do not illustrate any of the events described in the book, they do help to convey however the world in which the stories take place by adding an additional layer of depth and lyricism to the meaning of the stories presented.
It is worth mentioning that Yevegenia Belorusets shared her war diary via Isolarii for the period of 41 days between 24 February and 5 April 2022. I highly recommend you check her entries to see the unique vantage of what people of Ukraine have been experiencing in the last months.
About Lucky Breaks Belorusets said that its objective was “to re-establish the right of suppressed, unseen, and unheard stories to be told.” This book is an essential read for the current times.
This series of short stories, originally written in Russian and published in 2018 and first translated into English in 2022, explores the lives of Ukrainian women, displaced, forced to seek refuge in other parts of Ukraine as a result of the war in Eastern Ukraine which started in 2014. Some stories take place in Kyiv, some in a warzone, and others in the territories occupied by the Russia-backed separatists. All these snapshots of a singular life presented in those stories focus on how traumatic historical events transform one’s everyday life, how military and political turmoil upends the lives of the ‘ordinary’ women who endured so many senseless losses. We get a glimpse into what’s now and what’s been.
The book centres on women – women from all walks of life, all backgrounds, all ages, women whose age is difficult to decipher because “they are young but tired (…), they can be mistaken for someone twenty years older”. Many of the protagonists are painfully lonely in their despair to rebuild their lives in Kyiv and other parts of western Ukraine, longing for relationships, love but often sticking to their wartime habits. Their daily existence amounts to the mere survival in the ruins of war, being displaced and out of place, without social network, with no social status, with no ability to articulate profound trauma that penetrates every aspect of their lives.
The protagonists we encounter in these stories often have no words to describe their emotions, their state of mind and being. Their daily behaviour is affected by what they have experienced. They rarely receive any substantial support for their permanent psychological wounds. In order to exist they must go to work, to pay bills. They are all traumatised souls, ‘ordinary women’, without financial security and comfort, without any safety net. In all cases portrayed in Lucky Breaks the issue of class and economic status is crucial and profoundly impacting daily existence of these women.
Some stories include elements of the supernatural to emphasize how ‘supernatural’, almost unreal it feels for those displaced by war to exist in their daily life. They feel disoriented, in constant grief, lost without their families, without life they had built in Eastern Ukraine, forced to find a new employment in a new place, forced to deal with the indifference, often stuck in poorly paid jobs, the only jobs they can get.
Each story is a snapshot of one life – some stories are testimonies – sometimes illogical, unverifiable, some take a form of an interview – conversation. Most protagonists of the stories show the obsessiveness with small objects of a daily use – the metaphor for deeply traumatized people. One of the women keeps losing and retrieving a black, broken umbrella from the station. An umbrella symbolizes other losses in her life; things that we take for granted. Another woman can’t stop compulsively thinking about her lost apartment in Eastern Ukraine.
Stories depict the lives of women, sisters, friends, those who are completely lost, confused living in a confused reality. We meet the midwife in her 50s. We meet a florist from Donetsk who is ‘great at flowers, but unsuited for real life’, who knew how to exist only within the walls of her flower shop – which was the meaning of her life. We meet a woman who medicates herself with the visits to a cosmetologist. We meet an affluent, educated, lonely woman who used to run a major company in Eastern Ukraine and now with her home and company destroyed, she is working as a cleaner in Kyiv. We witness a woman who loses her ability to walk in the middle of the street because of trauma. We meet a woman who must take up three jobs in Kyiv to survive. We meet a woman with a degree in economics and an interest in arts and culture who cannot find a suitable job, but her bills are piling up. She lives in constant stress of not having enough money on top of dealing with trauma of being a displaced – out of place person. We learn the story of a manicurist from Donetsk who has been missing for two years and her salon being turned into a warehouse – we don’t know her whereabouts. We learn about someone’s sister who was taken by the armed strangers with no one to ask for her whereabouts – she suddenly reappears without saying anything with everyone else going on as if nothing happened. We learn about a Ukrainian woman falling in love with a Russian man and the consequences of their feelings on them, in particular on her, and those around them.
Women we encounter in Lucky Breaks who found refuge in other parts of Ukraine often reflect on what happened to the people they used to know in Eastern Ukraine, their neighbours living in the same building in Donetsk. One of them who now works as a cleaner in Kyiv used to have an affluent life. She recalls her neighbour who used to run a technology company, another one who also worked in a housing management – they all gone, disappeared. There is no one to ask about them whether they are alive or gone forever.
In one of the stories, the protagonist mentions that we, as a society, love celebrating women but only a certain type of women. We often forget about the women ‘in some backwater, small places, remote places’ – they are often invisible, especially older women, disabled women, single women.
We witness the impact of the war on people who previously did not have much interest in politics; a florist for whom her flower shop used to be her life. During the war she suddenly disappears; her business was replaced by the warehouse for propaganda materials. There are rumours that she joined the partisans, but no one knows on which side. There is this omnipresent uncertainty throughout all the stories – there is a repeated motif of some strangers, some armed men, civilians being unsure who are those armed people: ours or theirs.
The narrator in many of these stories is wandering through the streets of Kyiv randomly encountering the women who become the heroines of those vignettes. The narrator is an emphatic observer of human suffering. Belorusets’s sensitivity reminds me of other great Eastern and Central European writers such as Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka, Mikhail Sebastian, Hanna Krall, Imre Kertesz, Zbigniew Herbet.
This is a powerful book of an extraordinary impact on the reader. I read the American edition published by New Directions. There will be the UK edition of Lucky Breaks published by Pushkin Press at the end of May. I highly recommend everyone this book. Not only this book is an essential read for the current times, but also the writing is so unique, with unmatched sensitivity, not comparable to anything I have read in the anglophone market.
I can only wish that more books like Lucky Breaks by the contemporary Ukrainian and Eastern European writers will be translated into English to access a wider readership.