Book of the Month Extract – The Rooster House by Victoria Belim

The Rooster House by Victoria Belim is our Book of the Month for June 2023. Read an extract from the opening of the book here...

Mourning a place is even more difficult than mourning a person. Losing a loved one is a tragic but inevitable part of human experience, but war is not. Seeing our familiar landmarks sink into violence, we grieve for ourselves as we once were and we question what we have become. Grief squeezed me to the point that I could no longer articulate any thought coherently. Sometimes, sharing a glass of wine with friends, I thought, what if the Russian army invades beyond Crimea? Grey images borrowed from the Second World War films of my childhood sped through my mind: tanks rolling through my great-grandparents’ village, men in fatigues chopping down our cherry orchard, bombs falling onto our old apartment in Kyiv. Someone would then ask me if I was OK, and I would take a sip of my wine and nod. I didn’t know how to explain to my sympathetic friends for whom war existed in faraway places and on the pages of newspapers, that every day of that undeclared war something shattered inside of me. Asking for compassion in such circumstances forced people to make moral judgments and pick sides, and I struggled to make sense of the events myself.

On many nights I lay in bed and the only way I could relieve my pain was to imagine a sharp knife cutting through my diaphragm, breaking through my bones and tearing my flesh. Imagining a pain worse than I felt soothed me momentarily before revealing the true depth of my agony. Then I suffered even more. Or I stayed awake and sat on the windowsill in the living room, pressing my face to the cold glass and letting my tears stream over Brussels shivering in the silvery halo of lights.

My family mourned and panicked, each in their own way. My mother imagined worst-case scenarios and drew on examples from the Balkan Wars to explain the situation in Ukraine. My aunt shared her arguments with people whose views were similar to Vladimir. She complained about a former classmate’s captivation with the president of Russia. ‘He even bought a jacket similar to Putin’s. You know, all black and with a small hard collar,’ she said. ‘Every year he travels to Russia “to breathe the air of freedom”. That’s what he writes in his Facebook status updates. He lives in Canada.’ After these conversations, I wanted to either weep or punch the walls.

The person I spoke to the most was my grandmother Valentina, because she didn’t want to talk about the war. She said that every TV channel and every conversation was filled with it and she was tired. She talked mostly about the orchard and spring planting. When I asked her if she had a travel passport in case we had to evacuate her out of Ukraine, she told me that she didn’t need one. When I insisted, she repeated, enunciating every word, that she didn’t want to go anywhere, come what may. And so with Valentina, I didn’t have to worry about stumbling into a topic that left us upset with each other. Talking to my grandmother about pruning cherry trees and planting tomatoes distracted me, but when I hung up, I reverted to my anxious, despondent state. I also obsessed over my conflict with Vladimir. I ran various arguments through my mind to convince him that the greatest catastrophe was not the collapse of the Soviet Union but its existence. I imagined telling him that Ukraine, with its key position between Russia and Western Europe, was always going to be a battleground for Russian imperial ambitions and that Russia would do anything to keep this strip of land under its control, but that Ukrainians had a right to choose who governed them and how they lived. Then I recalled his unfair accusations and my anger returned redoubled.

I nevertheless found one thing I could do. It was to buy a ticket and go to Ukraine. Vladimir taunted me with the idea, and I decided to take him up on the challenge. And just like that, one morning I vowed to return to Bereh.

The Rooster House by Victoria Belim is our Book of the Month for June 2023. Read an extract from the opening of the book here... Find out more and order your copy here.