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BookBrowse Reviews I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart

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I Will Die in a Foreign Land

by Kalani Pickhart

I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart X
I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2021, 260 pages

    Paperback:
    May 2022, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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A powerful look at the persistence of love despite the heavy human cost of political and social unrest in Ukraine.

Though I Will Die in a Foreign Land follows multiple perspectives across a span of several years, the majority of the novel is centered around the Euromaidan protests of 2013-2014 in Ukraine. Tension was sparked by the government's decision to abandon a proposed agreement with the European Union, choosing instead to form closer ties with Russia and the Putin administration. Kyiv's Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) became the epicenter of the demonstrations, with thousands of Ukrainians gathering to call for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych. Legislation was quickly introduced to try and strip the public of their right to protest, with pro-Russian activists and riot police descending on the square. Violence soon erupted, resulting in well over 100 deaths.

Kalani Pickhart chronicles all of this political intrigue, but chooses to place the focus firmly on her characters, ensuring the book never reads like a history lesson. Though they are embroiled in the turmoil caused by the riots, we also see the enduring nature of the characters' more personal hardships. Each of them is struggling with grief in some way: Misha is an engineer mourning the loss of his wife; Katya is a doctor treating the wounded while contemplating her own son's death; Aleksandr, a former KGB agent, is searching for his long-lost daughter; and Slava is a young activist estranged from her parents after a difficult childhood, now forced to hide her blossoming relationship with another woman due to rampant homophobia. While violence rages around them, each is simply fighting for the chance to be with those they love.

By exploring their complex backstories in this way, we gain valuable insight into the myriad obstacles the people of Ukraine have had to overcome throughout the country's turbulent history — from the Chernobyl disaster to Russian oppression, and from poverty to Nazi invasion. Having already suffered so much loss, their dogged determination to preserve their land and culture makes all the more sense. Beyond this, focusing primarily on the intimate costs rather than the wider furor emphasizes the humanity of those caught up in the crisis, refusing to let them become mere statistics by showcasing how flawed and multi-faceted people can be.

For some, the narrative structure may prove alienating at first. Told in a non-linear fashion and incorporating multimedia formats such as newspaper articles, flight manifestos and audio transcripts, it can be tricky to keep track of the timeline and the various connections between each thread. That said, these somewhat removed, fact-based sections create a tonal contrast that accentuates the passion and emotion of the individual characters' stories, while providing further context for the carnage unfolding around them.

In many ways, the book feels like an ode to the everyman of Ukraine. With a deft hand, it celebrates those who strive to heal when the world around them feels broken, and the bravery required to love against the odds. Never shying away from the brutal reality of living through troubled times, its message of resilience has proven more prescient than anyone could have predicted, given the book's publication mere months before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, forcing Ukrainians to defend their autonomy once again. I Will Die in a Foreign Land is at once a detailed snapshot of a very specific time and place, and an enduring, universal rallying call for hope in the face of tyranny.

Reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2022, and has been updated for the June 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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