Erin Litteken tells the story of four generations of women of an American family. At the centre of the story is Cassie, the young widow, who struggles to come to terms with her husband’s recent death in an accident. She lives in Wisconsin with her little daughter Birdie, who has not spoken since her father died. When her grandmother, Bobby, falls ill, Cassie’s mother Anna persuades her daughter to come with Birdie to Illinois and move in with her grandmother to look after her. But nobody is fooled by Anna’s ploy. It soon becomes clear that Cassie needs her grandmother’s emotional support as much as Bobby needs her granddaughter’s practical help, and a beautiful modern story of multigenerational living unfolds.
Yet, a darker story lies buried in the past of the nonagenarian grandmother who sometimes screams in her sleep, gets lost in the street and hides food all over the house and the garden. Cassie is a writer who has not written anything since being widowed. But she has always longed to find out more about her Ukrainian-born grandmother who had never wanted to speak about the life she had before arriving in America. When Cassie finally encounters her Bobby’s old diary, her journey into the past begins and the meaning of Litteken’s title, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, becomes clear.
With the help of her kind and incidentally very attractive neighbour Nick, who shares Cassie’s Ukrainian heritage, and, unlike her, is able to read and translate from Ukrainian, the young woman finds out about her grandmother’s experience of the Holodomor – the Great Famine which killed millions of people in Soviet Ukraine and southern Russia in 1932-33 as Joseph Stalin collectivised agricultural production. As a man-made famine, the Holodomor has been recognised by Ukraine and other countries as a genocide against the Ukrainian people by the Soviet regime. The story Cassie and Nick discover from the perspective of Katya, Bobby’s younger self, is harrowing: As the Soviet activists arrive in her village to set up the collective, they set neighbour against neighbour. Those who refuse to join are punished, deported or killed outright. Those who join the collective are exploited as labour and slowly starved. Cassie’s grandmother survived, but only reluctantly shares her tale. Too deep sit her pain and her survivor’s guilt, as she is haunted by the memory of her sister Alina, her first love Pavlo, her son Viktor and the little girl Halya.
The composition of Litteken’s book is perfect as the chapters about Cassie’s modern life alternate with those about Katya’s experiences in Ukraine and the lives of different generations of women interweave, revealing striking parallels between them and deeper truths about the meaning of life. The Memory Keeper of Kyiv is certainly an important and sadly also a timely work as Russia is once again targeting the Ukrainian people with brutal force, and I would recommend everyone to read it. I just wish Litterken had given her characters a bit more space to develop beyond the things they stand for and symbolise. Maybe because it is based on historical research, maybe because the subject matter is so heavy, the novel is a bit too self-conscious to get completely lost in it. But it clearly has its purpose.