Cracks on stained glass windows: “Daughter” by Tamara Duda11 min read

 In Eastern Europe, Focus, Format, Review, Reviews
“Everyone should see how here, in the legendary steppes of the Donbas — which actually aren’t steppes at all, but fields, ravines, and forest belts — passes a slender figure between the slag heaps and the pipes. How she touches the sky and laughs in anticipation, and from that laughter the earth splits and tears open her bowels, splitting the wires and belching out the tips of Scythian arrows.”

Some things you experience over time remain firmly imprinted in your consciousness — they take you from within and grip you so tightly that escaping seems impossible. The only solution is to embrace them, to see them as an additional bodily organ. It’s only when you’ve finally come to terms with the plethora of intense emotions and found a way to contain them that you can truly move forward. And if fortune bestows upon you some dose of creativity, then you can lighten your load by sharing it with the world, much like Tamara Duda, whose 2021 debut novel Daughter took the Ukrainian literary scene by storm, proving that nothing is more authentic than a piece drawn from personal experience. 

Duda grew up in Kyiv, but her skill in conveying the Donbas landscape in her work caused her to be associated with this region. Previously in her career, she combined journalism and English translation, before finally devoting herself to creative writing. She is currently the author of two books, but only relatively recently decided to become a public figure. Her volunteer activities in the Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone between 2014 and 2016, along with her blog on Facebook written under the pseudonym Tamara Horikha Zernya, which depicted the hardships of life under Russia-backed separatism regime in Donbas, earned her more prominent recognition. For her selfless work, she received an award from the mayor of Kyiv. In 2019, her first book, Daughter, was published under the aforementioned pseudonym, and it was awarded the BBC Ukraine Award for Best Book of Fiction. Subsequently, the Ukrainian Book Institute recognised the novel as one of the thirty most significant prose works of independent Ukraine. In recognition of her exceptional writing, Tamara Duda was also awarded Ukraine’s most prestigious cultural honour, the Shevchenko National Prize. 

In Daughter, Duda has crafted an engaging yet gentle and comical narrative from her volunteer venture, highlighting the strength of communal ties and unflinching determination in pursuit of a brighter tomorrow. The novel is narrated by the titular unnamed Daughter, affectionately nicknamed “the Elf,” who begins the story looking back on her past as a reclusive adolescent raised by an alcoholic father. It is painfully evident that her imaginative and scientific ambitions are stifled by the small Ukrainian town she inhabits. Feeling constantly like a hermit in this dead-end, hostile environment, she finds it difficult to establish herself as a fulfilled person. Besides, her love life leaves much to be desired, a major blow to the self-esteem of an adolescent. Eventually, her father sends her to live with her grandmother in Donetsk. The girl is determined and intelligent, but faced with Donetsk’s fossilised job market, she compromises by taking a tedious job in a supermarket. Nevertheless, her inner strength and throbbing sense of unfulfillment soon allowed her to quit the job without regret, and her unleashed feelings give rise to an impulsive creative outburst, which takes the form of paintings on the windows of her house. This key moment awakens the heroine’s latent artistic abilities, eventually enabling her to turn her passion into a lucrative career. She also assembles a tight-knit team of blue-collar workers and slick outcasts who soon prove to be her most reliable allies, both on the job and in her personal life.

Life goes on as usual, until suddenly it doesn’t. The proud and resilient nation of Ukraine has been denied its independence for too long, and now its determined society has taken to the streets to make its voice heard. The images of the Maidan demonstrations dominate television screens and it becomes clear that this is the point of no return. The Rubikon in the form of the level of patience of Ukrainians has been crossed, and the protests occurring in the nation have spread to Donbas. This sudden political turmoil, a rift in the formerly symbiotic society, disrupts the regional status quo, causing the autochthonous society to make choices and choose sides. Some of them, those most susceptible to Russian propaganda,become unrecognisable in the heroine’s eyes, including her closest neighbours, who suddenly “believed in the Right Sector, Banderites, bogeymen, and alien invasions.” A thickening climate of political radicalization takes over with redoubled force. When the Daughter, angry at the nonsense people are spreading about what is happening, engages in discussions with them on public transportation, she is spat on and thrown off the bus as a result. But the fear gradually melts away as comfort comes in the form of joining patriotic communities online and casual conversation with an elderly neighbour. With this one mental restraint gone, it is finally time to take action.

In the midst of the advancing decay and the palpable presence of Russia in the neighbourhood, the question of whether it would be better to leave hangs in the air. But as soon as that nebulous thought comes up, it is gone in the blink of an eye. With the help of her colleagues, the Daughter begins organising pro-Ukrainian rallies with great success. In those moments, “we all became Ukrainians and carried our Ukraine like an athlete carrying the Olympic torch, higher than the sky,” she recalls, even though the demonstrations were violently suppressed each time. With war looming on the horizon, the Daughter and her allies waste no time in devising a plan to help those who have already begun fighting. There are: frontline rides with freshly cooked cabbage rolls, Facebook fundraisers for military equipment and food, and comprehensive assessments of who is reliable and who is a risk. The entire team works like a Swiss watch, navigating the streets of Donbas in a carefully woven web of social connections, led by an inconspicuous and delicate little Elf whom no one would expect to be involved in clandestine activities. 

While the novel’s characters operate in the shadows, the unfolding plot allows for a broader portrayal of the region, without shying away from presenting its ills and adversities. Among the less reputable societal processes that we have been witnessing in Ukraine is the ever-present patriarchal supremacy, the reality of countless miserable, loveless marriages and women who have always submitted to men out of some unspecified obligation. “We had a lot of wife-beating in our building,” the Daughter says casually, recalling events from her youth. As a regular witness to domestic violence, she now finds it difficult to imagine herself at the altar. Because the pattern remains, and women are the ones who end up as victims, generation after generation. During the war – ever more. 

In one striking scene, Duda depicts the Daughter encountering a separatist walking with a frightened girl. Time freezes as she weighs a critical decision, knowing that every moment is crucial. Acting on instinct, the Daughter feigns gratitude, slips money to the separatist, and rescues the girl before the tension subsides, revealing the gravity of her courageous act: risking her life to save a 14-year-old girl held captive for eight days. This is not the only example in the book of how cruel war really is, especially for women and children, but it is the reality we as readers must accept as the Daughter mercilessly draws us into the successive circles of Dantean Donetsk. 

Duda’s novel not only fantastically depicts the protagonist’s emotional palette in the face of danger, it also does not shy away from vivisecting Donetsk residents’ attitudes through the Daughter’s eyes. It is obvious that she cannot bear the forced acceptance and the general masquerade that the locals have adopted to silence their ever-present fears and anxieties. But it is the pure ignorance of some of Donetsk’s residents that she truly despises. These not-so-subtly pro-Russian Ukrainians simply do not care and would accept whatever the future brings them, at the same time being inclined to think that Russia’s coming was obviously inevitable. With palpable disappointment, she notes: “There were whole districts in Donetsk where everything was harasho, yet where people were being shot at a mere kilometre away from you. (…) The dramatic inhumanity of my fellow townspeople was depressing. The word for it is ‘dehumanisation’, right? The stable, well-fed areas of the city with running water and electricity were not the ones which took in our refugees from the north (…) did not think about us on our exodus from the areas of the city under attack: they barely even remembered we existed.” Trying not to dwell on it, because you cannot wear yourself out trying to change people’s beliefs, the Daughter, in a moment of weakness, recalls the historical figure of Vasyl Stus, a prominent Ukrainian poet who grew up and was educated in the lands of Donbas. Inspired by his legacy, she has a sense of what her cry to him could be: “If I had ever met Stus, I would have told him to kill them all! Tear out their eyes, their throats; your death should be on the battlefield, where they cut you into twenty-one pieces, but your enemies should wet their deathbeds at the very thought of you. (…) Sit up and laugh, laugh in their faces. Even if Ukraine no longer is around you, and all that is left is boundless and bare, even if it has become the lone and level sands of an Egyptian darkness, Ukraine will live on in your head, because Ukraine — is you.” She knows perfectly well that the person who needs these words is no one but herself. 

The character of the Daughter itself is one that leaves much room for interpretation. The heroine, fragile yet possessing a resilient spirit, navigates occupied Donetsk akin to a chess knight—ever-present, coordinating actions, and providing aid. She embodies both the protective instinct of a mother and the unwavering determination of a daughter fighting for her nation’s cause. She is a patchwork of intertwined social roles, a kaleidoscope of extreme emotions. Scraps of different Ukrainians from all over the country lumped together into one body as on the cover of a recently translated Spanish edition that features an outline of a woman’s head composed of pieces of colourful stained glass — exactly the kind our heroine carves. It’s the best portrayal, the most subtle capture of the essence of the novel — a person who is shattered inside and out, but not broken. No, she holds her head high and does not cower in fear. It sends a clear and powerful message — whatever Ukraine suffers, it will endure. 

At some point, there has to be an ending to this story. It’s not a happy one, since it’s obviously not a happy story. For a moment, it stuns us like mortar fire and tears our hearts apart, leaving nothing but a gaping void. But the author did not intend to make one feel depressed. That is why the final pages end on a lighter note, like the day after a huge storm, when we are still witnessing the demolitions that have taken place. A little brighter. A little calmer. With a spark of hope still intact, still smouldering. 

Without a doubt, Tamara Duda has created a true literary masterpiece. With her impeccable writing, she was able to brilliantly capture the unease of her countrymen on the brink of war and then lead the reader through the gates of terror, without losing the ability to maintain a balance between sadness and the occasional humour that always lurks, even in the harshest conditions. This is the real strength of this novel — a sense of interacting with characters who are not just a hastily sketched collection of random epithets, but flesh-and-blood people we can feel and hear through the pages of this book. This diverse Donetsk crowd, made up mostly of characters based on people the author knew personally, makes us laugh and cry in equal measure, but above all, believe in them. Donetsk itself — this misunderstood, seemingly hostile and forbidding city — becomes a formative training ground for the heroine. It is here that she gains life experience, matures as a person, and completes her journey of self-discovery, reminding the audience that the greatest courage begins with the smallest steps of righteousness. 

“Were you not expecting this? Then all the worse for you.” 

Book details: Daughter, by Tamara Duda, translated by Daisy Gibbons, 2023, Mosaic Press. Buy it here.

Feature Image: Mosaic Press / Canva
Recommended Posts