The Girl in the Water cover

There are very few novels that talk about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disaster in Chernobyl. This book is one of them.

Truth to tell, that is the debut novel by Canadian author Joseph Howse. The Girl in the Water (this is the title of the book) is, hence, an historical novel, with a strong European footprint.

But what has a Canadian writer to do with a story set in the East of Europe?

He has a lot to do with it, because, as readers will discover in the novel, Canadians were heavily committed in this region of the world before and after the disaster.

They conducted medical research in Ukraine and saved tons of refugees aboard their ships that departed from the port of Odessa (this city is always located in Ukraine).

We are at the dawn of the political disintegration of the Soviet Union, in the novel, when Mikhail Gorbachev was about to banish nuclear weapons in the states of the Union, just before the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl blew up.

But his openness policy fails, and the surrounding countries of Eastern Europe precipitate into a desperate downturn. The inhabitants of Estonia look for a better future in the North of Europe, migrating abroad just from Odessa’s port.

It is in this changing and gloomy scenery that the vicissitudes of an Estonian family come to life.

Two sisters, Nadia and Nastya, get separated: the latter, the older sister, goes to Kiev and gets married with Lieutenant Giorgi.

Nadia, conversely, is different. She is a young and smart student who speaks two languages (English and Estonian) and reads Tolstoy. Nadia has great dreams: she does not seek for a social status given by a convenience marriage.

She aims for the mindfulness given by learning, culture and literature, which, in the novel, emerge as the true ingredients to obtain complete fulfillment and freedom.

Nadia moves back and forth to Estonia, where her paternal Grandma lives, and Ukraine, to visit the sister.

In this path, readers will meet other meaningful characters, such as Nadia’s grandmother, a veteran of WWII, Ida, a friend of Nadia and Nastya, and Rosya an activist who knows the tragedies of dictatorship and oppression.

Through the life experience of each of them, the author depicts an actual tale that leads us to understand the economic and political reasons behind the current European hardships.

The injuries left by Lenin and Stalin are still evident in the former Soviet Union. The military dominance of Russia over the other former Soviet countries comes from this far past that the current Russian leaders find hard to digest.

In these austere regimes, diversity is not tolerated, neither religious minorities, nor homosexuals. For them, differences are a peril, not an opportunity.

The characters of the book try escaping all this, along with the evacuation process in Pripyat, the city built around the nuclear power plant of Chernobyl.

They must escape radiation and an overwhelming limitation of their true identity.

Indeed, there is a solid sense of community and friendship in the story, tragic events seem always to stay in the backdrop, readers can just perceive a subtle vein of sadness which never turns into despair.

The power of women prevails in this historical novel; you can sense it in the dialogues oozing hope, energy and skillful lessons of life. These personages never lose their dignity, even when they endure injustice and sacrifices.

However, I would have preferred the story was narrated in first person, with the voice of Nadia. It is in third person, instead. But the meaning is clear: when an old-world ends, a new life is always around the corner. We must only have the courage to grasp it.

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