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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Baba Dunja's Last Love

by
Alina Bronsky


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Baba Dunja's Last Love



Title: Baba Dunja's Last Love
Author: Alina Bronsky
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 135 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Baba Dunja's Last Love - US
Baba Dunja's Last Love - UK
Baba Dunja's Last Love - Canada
Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe - Deutschland
  • German title: Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe
  • Translated by Tim Mohr

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Our Assessment:

B+ : amiable tale in unlikely setting

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Baba Dunja's Last Love is narrated by Baba Dunja, a very old woman who makes her home in Tschernowo, deep inside: "what many call the death zone", the still-radioactive area around where the Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place. She was the first to venture back into the dangerous territory, but she isn't the only one there. It remains a very small community, however, that has come to live in the abandoned houses here. Still, they're not entirely isolated, occasionally making the trip to the nearest town, Malyschi, and also receiving visitors -- usually dressed in protective gear, often scientists who are studying the after-effects of the disaster.
       One of her neighbors sums up Baba Dunja's position in this tiny community:

     "You are sort of like the mayor here."
     "Nobody has ever insulted me like that before."
       Baba Dunja has two children: a son she barely is in contact with who lives in the United States, and a dutiful daughter, Irina, who is a doctor in Germany, whom she is in closer touch with (and who even comes to see her mother occasionally), even though she has never met Irina's husband, or their daughter, Laura.
       Baba Dunja is a nicely realized character, a sensible realist who knows what she's doing -- even as she seems to have made the most un-sensible of decisions, in returning to a place that is (or should be) killing her (indeed, one reason she never traveled to Germany -- despite her daughter wanting to bring her there -- is because she herself is literally radioactive, down to her very bones). Her neighbors are a colorful cast of characters, most minding their own business, though there's at least some sense of community. Tellingly, however, the first time they all really get together -- to celebrate a wedding -- is also the moment when the fragile community falls apart.
       For the most part, Baba Dunja putters along, tending to her garden and dealing with the odds and ends of day to day life. She doesn't really read, and though she's heard of the internet has never seen it. But then Tschernowo is essentially a no-man's-land, and out of cell phone- and even most TV-reception range.
       Life is upended by two new arrivals, but it's a very short interruption. As Baba Dunja explains in a letter to her daughter:
We gained two new residents, but they were unable to stay. Life in Tschernowo is very nice, but it's not suitable for everyone.
       Oddly, Bronsky doesn't mine this episode very deeply, rushing the characters in and then out without much explanation as to what exactly possessed them to come here. There are hints of who they are (apparently rich) and possible reasons for wanting to settle here (a very ugly family dispute), but they're used very much like pawns in a chess game, briefly sent to the fore, and then wiped from the board after they've served their purpose.
       The ramifications of their brief sojourn -- and how the residents reacted to it -- are significant, and do lead to Baba Dunja experiencing something more than just life in Tschernowo and Malyschi, but this too is dealt with rather summarily.
       Meanwhile, one thing that does preoccupy Baba Dunja is a letter she receives from her grand-daughter, whom she has never heard from -- written in a script and language she is unfamiliar with. She is desperate to find out what it says, but can't find anyone who could reveal its contents to her -- or rather, she doesn't trust anyone who might be able to reveal the contents.
       Even as Bronsky gives Baba Dunja a great voice, the plot, despite all the potential she endows it with, tends towards the anti-climactic. In part that's fitting for a story told by Baba Dunja, an old woman who has seen it all and can't be shaken up by much any longer, but it still gives the novel an odd feel.
       Baba Dunja's old-age wisdom contrasts some to her past, but the Chernobyl disaster obviously put a lot in perspective. She admits she was a bit hard on her own children:
When I was young I put so much effort into being a good person that I was dangerous to others. I was very strict with my children so they'd be decent, hardworking citizens. Now I'm sorry I didn't indulge them more.
       She longs for the grand-daughter she has never known -- and can be non-judgmental in a way her daughter Irina can't -- but she has also found her home in Tschernowo, and knows that this is where she belongs.
       Bronsky does a lot very nicely here; unlikely though it may seem, given the setting, Baba Dunja's Last Love is a surprisingly cheerful novel -- suggesting, too , that even somewhere where people are at their most isolated (and literally radioactive to the world (including their loved ones)) no man is entirely an island. But the handling of the plot as it veers to the sensational leaves more questions open than it should. At least it's tied up neatly enough, Baba Dunja knowing her place in the world and unwilling to entertain the other possibilities.
       Baba Dunja's Last Love is a very good if ultimately not entirely satisfying read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 May 2016

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Links:

Baba Dunja's Last Love: Reviews: Other books by Alina Bronsky under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Alina Bronsky (a pseudonym) was born in Russia in 1978 and emigrated to Germany after the fall of the Soviet Union.

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© 2016 the complete review

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