A review of Ivan and Phoebe by Oksana Lutsyshyna

Reviewed by Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed

Ivan and Phoebe
by Oksana Lutsysyna
Translated by Nina Murray
Deep Vellum Publishing
June 2023, Hardcover, 425 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1646052622

On February 24, 2022, the attention of the world was drawn to Ukraine as Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the country. When Kyiv did not fall “within three days,” disrupting the blitzkrieg triumph which Russian President Vladimir Putin and his supporters were hoping to celebrate, the Ukrainians’ readiness to defend their state, culture, and history impressed the world. One of the queries was to understand the roots and inspiration of Ukraine’s unfaltering resistance. 

Oksana Lutsyshyna’s latest novel Ivan and Phoebe, originally published in Ukrainian in 2019 and now available in English (translated by Nina Murray and published by Deep Vellum Publishing in 2023), gives readers a deeper understanding of the Ukrainians’ long and turbulent journey toward a sovereign state and the nation’s gains and mistakes. 

Oksana Lutsyshyna is an award-winning Ukrainian writer. She is the recipient of several literary prizes, including the UNESCO prize and the Shevchenko National Prize for Literature.

The historical and socio-political dimension of the novel primarily centers on the earthshaking 1990s when the USSR dissolved and Ukraine gained its independence. But it includes the previous decades as well providing a textured context for Ukraine’s ongoing indefatigable effort toward sovereignty. This thoughtful probe into the tectonic shifts within Ukrainian society is amplified by a love story, a family saga, a psychological drama, and a detective story. 

The story takes place in Lviv, Uzhhorod, and Kyiv and travels across the mythic lands of Western Ukraine and urban landscapes of the cities—Lviv and Kyiv—which have always been centers of political and cultural activism. Ivan and Phoebe brings to mind the classics of Ukrainian literature: the complexities of rural-urban migration of Valerian Pidmohylny’s The City and the female protagonist’s defiance of patriarchal expectations of Viktor Petrov’s (Domontovych) Doctor Seraficus. At the same time, its flexible texture includes various dialects, Hungarian cultural and culinary influences, Soviet ideological imprints, and the vibrant Ukrainian cultural rejuvenation of the 1990s. These are just a few tips for navigating the cultural diversity that is key to understanding Ukraine as a political and cultural entity. The delicate textual fabric of many loops and twists of Ivan and Phoebe blurs the boundaries that can artificially separate historical epochs and cultural enclaves.  

The main storyline centers on Ivan and readers will have to figure out why Maria/Phoebe is featured in the title of the book—her appearance in the novel can hardly be described as copious, and yet her quiet presence in a way defines the trajectories of the story. When on his deathbed, Paikosh says to Ivan: “I never forgot that you stood up for Ukraine. Ukraine needs standing up for. And your wife… Maria… Be good to her.” And he adds in a moment: “Keep them safe.” Did old Paikosh mean Ukraine or Ivan’s wife and daughter? Paikosh dies and Ivan never finds out what exactly the old man meant. An answer can go either way but each reading route will certainly modify readers’ expectations. 

The relationship between Ivan and Phoebe is overwhelmed with subtle psychological tensions which gradually lead to fiery emotional explosions revealing personal grievances and traumas partially rooted in the patriarchal system of gender expectations. The 1990s erupted with political and economic instabilities that left an indelible imprint on individual families. Many Ukrainians lost their jobs as a result of bankrupt institutions, had to leave their families and go abroad in search of job opportunities. Usually, these were low-paying manual jobs, but for the Ukrainians who were not paid for months, they would provide some financial security. However, these financial opportunities, no matter how low-paying they were, came at a price: broken families, abandoned kids, estranged parents, and ruined friendships. Of course, there were happy stories as well: parents who went abroad (Poland, Hungary, Italy, as a rule) and left their children in Ukraine had opportunities to provide them with food, material comfort, and education. 

The 1990s that brought both Ukraine’s independence and economic and political instability were turbulent and euphoric, agonizing and intoxicating, despondent and jaunty. It was a time when opportunists could make staggering careers but it was also a time to enjoy freedom, to be adventurous, and to indulge in risky enterprises. The burden of the Soviet past, undoubtedly, lingered but there was a genuine enthusiasm to move away from the oppressive past and build a new life, change the country that was under the control of Russia for too long. Characters of Ivan and Phoebe, in a way, embody the hopes and frustrations of many Ukrainians of the 1990s. Gradually, the novel develops into a metaphor for the country that attempts to break away from the imperial and colonial pressure of its neighbor—Russia—but struggles to stabilize itself as it goes through drastic changes. This feverish endeavor may seem painful and frustrating, but eventually, it appears to be quite natural if drastic changes are to take place. 

Phoebe carries the burdens of patriarchal culture and she attempts to articulate her rejection of gender stereotypes and societal prejudices. However, she does not seem to be heard and understood as a woman who has the right to not commit herself to the patterns that Margita, Ivan’s mother, perceives as the only possible way of life. Ivan brutally takes advantage of Phoebe’s vulnerability but her silent resistance brings out the worst in him: “Over for him, because nothing even started for her, and maybe that was for the better, let her get used to not expecting much from life, let her at least get used to being a woman like Margita, delighted with small things: preserves for the winter and apple pie.”

Ivan participates in the Revolution on the Granite which was one of the key events that eventually led to Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991. This part of the novel is indeed a guidebook that walks readers through numerous political subtleties that propelled Ukraine’s independence and obstacles that hindered a transition toward sovereignty. 

Organized primarily by students on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), Kyiv, in October 1990, the Revolution on the Granite was a bold march against the Soviet government. The protesters demonstrated a high level of self-organization and civic solidarity. It took a lot of courage for younger participants to go on a hunger strike and communicate with seasoned politicians who used their lifelong experience of making humiliating and dismissive remarks towards the “youngsters” to ridicule their political demands. The protesters succeeded in making the government respond: one of the gains was the resignation of Vitaly Masol, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Ukrainian USSR. Driven by political and social concerns, the Revolution on the Granite also demonstrated the longevity of the Ukrainians’ aspirations to have their own state and to participate in the political development of the country.  

Ivan takes an active part in the Revolution: he makes decisions crucial to the protest organization and he does his best to protect his girlfriend, Rosa. At the same time, Ivan learns something essential: his girlfriend does not need his protection, and as soon as the protest is over and after Ukraine gains its independence his friends with whom they stood up for their common cause have beliefs and ambitions which are quite alien to him, and which seem to go against their Revolution’s ultimate goals. There is some sense of sadness, if not depression that follows after Ivan leaves Kyiv and when he struggles to find his niche first in Lviv and then back in Uzhhorod. 

The disillusionment that these revelations expose seems to be a process of reflecting on Ukraine’s recent history and its impact on the decades immediately after the declaration of independence. More than 90% of Ukrainians supported Ukraine’s independence in 1991 but this political decision also involved a lot of political and civic responsibility. One may say, many Ukrainians were not prepared to undertake this responsibility. However, the level of solidarity and political activism that the Ukrainians showed since 1991 proves otherwise. The revolutions of 2004 and 2014 which also took place on Maidan Nezalezhnosti sent a clear signal that Ukrainians had learned to appreciate and fight for the values of freedom and democracy. On February 24, 2022, the Ukrainians passed another test on their appreciation of freedom, solidarity, and democracy.    

The language of the novel is captivating and Lutsyshyna creates deep characters and vivid storyline twists while unlocking her talent as a perceptive poet. Lutsyshyna’s depictions of nature landscapes are truly prose poetry. The topoi of land and river in the novel structure the narrative and serve to evoke the Ukrainian voices of Olha Kobylianska and Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky: “One could feel the noontime swelter ripening slowly in the fresh morning air. The fruit trees in the orchard had already bloomed, and the heads of peonies drooped brownish like dying embers, but the roses Margita cultivated with special affection were just beginning to bud. It was too early for anything to bear fruit, except the raspberry bushes dotted with a few red berries.” Nina Murray’s translation delivers the novel’s charm. 

Ivan and Phoebe will resonate with those who also appreciate John Steinbeck—Lutsyshyna elegantly works with the individual extrapolated on a larger collective dimension probing into the past and the present, into myths and history, individual and cultural memory: “And the rhythmic tapping—as if on wood, tap, tap tap-tap-tap—could it be the metronome, counting the days and hours of our lives, or was it, finally, that Someone who comes sometimes to remind us of the most important things and Whom we can never see, calling all to come to Him, with his wooden fingers tapping out in Morse code a single message be free be free be free…”   

About the reviewer: Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed is a Preceptor in Ukrainian at the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University. She has a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures (Indiana University, 2022). She also holds a Ph.D. in American literature (Taras Shevchenko Institute of Literature, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, 2007). Her research interests include contested memory, with a focus on Ukraine and Russia. She is a review editor of H-Ukraine. Since 2016, she has been a host on the New Books Network (Ukrainian Studies, East European Studies, and Literary Studies channels).