...there is a striking homogeneity in the muddy middle range of novels, often about families down the generations with multiple points of view and flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine or wherever.As UTUS was one of the novels read for the Giller, the judge was indubitably referring to it.
I don't give a flying fruit - UTUS, Canlitish or not, is a work of art. It impresses in every avenue and I am happy to call it one of the best novels I've read in 2009.
UTUS is the story of Ukranian immigrants Teodor and Maria Mykolayenko. Teodor is lured to Canada by the promise of land (and is driven from Ukraine due to Stalin's reign of terror). When Teodor fails to adhere to the impossible terms of the contract, he is forced off his land. He takes a wagon load of seed in order to survive and is promptly sent to prison.
His sister Anna takes in his family for the year he is away. Anna's husband, Stefan, was once a dashing solider in Ukraine but has now decamped to a nearby town to drink and whore away what money he can scrape up, leaving Anna depressed and pregnant. When the book opens, Teodor has just returned his family. He promptly sets about clearing Anna's land and building his own house, while his wife Maria feeds and tends to Anna's children.
From the opening pages we are told that great disaster will strike. This is a heavy blow for a beginning and it leaves little room for hope but it does fairly reflect the attitude of the book. There is much joy to be found in UTUS and I'm going to chalk it up to Shandi Mitchell's expansive writing. Mitchell is a filmmaker by trade and her prose pays close attention to the minute details of place. Every scene is evocatively portrayed, for example:
Above, a wash of northern lights pulse green and white across the prairie sky. Below, a chorus of frogs croaks...Spring has arrived swollen and impregnated by the retreating frost. He can smell her sweet decay. He can almost hear the earth heaving and groaning beneath his feet, opening herself wide to push her seedlings into light.This reflects the Mykolayenko family's intimate love of home. Every small detail is celebrated - making love in the cleared land of their future home; taking a pee on a frigid night with the comfortable knowledge that one will soon be inside, safe and snug in one's bed; an impromptu family dance party; a hearty pot of borscht; or the pleasure glutting oneself on eggs during a superior laying period. It's more than the stoic British attitude, 'there is nothing too grim to bear', it's a celebration of the present, of the joys of home and Earth. As Maria says when trying to heal Anna's pain:
She was relieved when Anna joined them in the garden. Hard work, fresh air, sunlight, and, the most important, being surrounded by life would be the best cure for her sister-in-law. Sometimes it is better to forget.Home is a religion all in its own. Teodor, after his return from prison, refuses to go to church and instead takes Sunday to work on their new house:
He no longer believes in promised lands. He rejects suffering for salvation later. He believes in life now...now he knows there is no God. A compassionate God wouldn't have tried to starve his family. A just God wouldn't have taken away everything that he had.Those that reject life are those that suffer the most in UTUS. Anna alienates herself from those closest to her and brutalizes her own flesh and in the end, she suffers deeply. Stefan rejects his farm and his family and can find no peace with himself. Even when the Mykolayenko family loses almost everything, they are still a family, bonded together to face whatever (certain) ills will befall them, willing to forget the past and move on. It's safe to say it's love of home that carries them forward.
The ending is climactic and brutal and almost tips the novel towards nihilism. Yet, it is not suffused with despair but rather a type of hope that few of us could ever think of possessing. And that this hope can exist is the greatest joy of all.