I Will Die in a Foreign Land, the debut novel by Kalani Pickhart, was first published by a small US press in 2021. Set during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, it caught a wave, and went on to win the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. This wave has now carried it across the water, and a UK version has been released. But is it deserving of its accolades, or have its merits been overblown because of its timeliness?
It is worth noting that Pickhart is not from Ukraine. Only the most dogmatic among us would say this precludes her from writing about the place, but it’s disheartening nonetheless that it is an American author, and not a Ukrainian one, that has shot to prominence. Still, we are here to critique the book, not its success in an unpredictable market, so let’s put that aside.
There is also the question of how well an outsider can capture a country she doesn’t come from. I’m sure the makers of Wild Mountain Thyme thought they did a stellar job, and who’s to tell them otherwise? But since I am no better placed to comment on how well the book represents Ukraine than the author was to represent it in the first place, this review will not speak to its accuracy in that sense.
Those reservations aside, the book is an innovative and compelling debut. A variety of methods — news clippings, folk songs, alternating third-person accounts, audio transcripts — are used to tell the story of a volatile winter in Kyiv, as the city rails following President Yaukovych’s failure to sign an association agreement with the European Union. We follow four individuals — doctor, Katya, engineer, Misha, activist, Slava and former KGB agent, Aleksander — whose lives intersect during the Euromaidan protests.
The book’s title comes from a Ukrainian folk lament, and in its musical prose and various acknowledgments of lives lost (both in global conflicts and disasters, and individual tragedies), it reads like a lament.
Notions of country, culture and freedom are chewed upon, but the book doesn’t feel ideological. It draws on Slavic art and history, as if writing what’s lost back into being, but it also posits the idea of a country-less world: “The word Ukraine means country. As if it were the only one. […] What if it’s all one country — this whole world?”
Though the non-linear timeline is at times difficult to follow, the story feels satisfying when it comes together. Timely it may be, but I Will Die in a Foreign Land is an illuminating and worthwhile read.