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Mother Country

Review

Mother Country

It has become almost a running joke to depict present-day Brooklyn as having succumbed to gentrification, inhabited by authors, celebrities and purveyors of artisanal mayonnaise. However, the opening of Irina Reyn’s new novel, MOTHER COUNTRY, offers a vivid reminder that Brooklyn is still a huge and complicated borough, one that can take (as it does for the book’s protagonist, Nadia) nearly an hour to traverse via public transit, as she travels from her apartment in South Brooklyn to her employment as a nanny on the other side of town.

Nadia immigrated to the United States from Ukraine seven years earlier, and “her” Brooklyn is still inhabited by a vibrant but often deeply divided community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Nadia’s employer, Regina, is also a Russian immigrant, but she has become thoroughly Americanized, pursuing a vague career as a writer, living in a tiny apartment in the “right” neighborhood, and --- most shockingly to Nadia --- raising her preschool daughter, Sasha, according to permissive American standards.

"For American readers, MOTHER COUNTRY will provide an education into the complex relationship between Ukraine and Russia, and even between Ukrainians of different origins and loyalties."

Nadia is also a mother, to an adult daughter named Larissa, who is still in Ukraine. When Nadia’s emigration paperwork finally went through, Larissa was (just barely) too old to accompany her mother as a minor child. So Nadia made the agonizing choice to leave Larissa behind, creating a rift in their relationship that has only grown deeper as conflicts in Ukraine have intensified following Nadia’s departure. Nadia did not anticipate abandoning Larissa for so long, or to a state of war. Now she spends every day fearing for her safety, especially over her access to insulin to control her diabetes. As reports of war intensify, Nadia develops increasingly baroque plans to secure her daughter’s visa to the United States. Her present-day efforts alternate with stories from Larissa’s childhood, as well as from Nadia’s own upbringing in Ukraine.

“What do you do?” Nadia asks near the end of the novel, “when your child becomes an adult?” Like all parents, Nadia must contend with her daughter’s identity as a mature woman with the independence and agency to make her own choices, even when those decisions are at odds with Nadia’s own desires. But this development and the sense of grief it engenders is even more acute for Nadia, who constantly asks herself how life --- her own and Larissa’s --- might have been different had she chosen to stay in Ukraine rather than start a new life apart from her daughter.

For American readers, MOTHER COUNTRY will provide an education into the complex relationship between Ukraine and Russia, and even between Ukrainians of different origins and loyalties. But it’s not solely a political novel. Reyn also interrogates what it means to be a mother, and how that definition and identity change --- sometimes painfully so --- over time.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 1, 2019

Mother Country
by Irina Reyn

  • Publication Date: February 26, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250076048
  • ISBN-13: 9781250076045