APRIL 16, 2022
The following review was written before the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine.
OLESYA KHROMEYCHUK’S NEW BOOK, A Loss: The Story of a Dead Soldier Told by His Sister, is about her own brother, who died in 2017 fighting for Ukraine against Russian-backed forces. Though the book achieves Khromeychuk’s goal — to humanize the war in Ukraine for an English-speaking audience — it does so not through depictions of the war itself but through eloquent testimony of the author’s grief. Khromeychuk shares with readers the darkest and most intimate moments of any family experiencing such a tremendous loss.
Born in Ukraine, Khromeychuk moved to the United Kingdom as a student 20 years ago, where she completed a dissertation on the history of World War II in Ukraine at University College London. She then spent years lecturing about war, her main lesson being that war is about humans, not tanks.
I attended the book launch for A Loss just before Christmas in the small theater in the back of the Calder Bookshop in London. The moderator was not present due to COVID-19, so Khromeychuk was on the stage alone, in front of an audience of 30 guests. She read several chapters from the book, which is made up of a series of short essays. The first was about the book’s genesis in a play she directed with her theater company in the same room where we were sitting. This play used video recordings she had found on her brother’s retrieved phone, which he had filmed in the days and even hours before he was killed by shrapnel in a muddy trench on the frontlines in Eastern Ukraine. Khromeychuk told us that having her actors, or the recordings, speak her brother’s lines meant that she was able to watch her experience being played out, something she found therapeutic.
She then read a chapter about the many warm obituaries for her brother on Facebook, which described him as a heroic Ukrainian patriot who abandoned his comfortable life in the West to fight for Ukrainian independence. What struck her, she said, was that her brother was unrecognizable to her in these tributes. He had in fact left his minimum-wage job in the Netherlands a few years before he volunteered to fight in Ukraine. His life in the Netherlands had been far from comfortable since he had often suffered xenophobic abuse from his employers. And besides, to her he was a brother, an artist, a traveler, not a soldier in a helmet.
Khromeychuk read out one more passage from the book and then opened the floor for questions. As is typical of most Q-and-As, someone who ostensibly wanted to ask a question instead made a protracted comment. Thankfully, the comment ended in an interesting question, about the book’s use of folklore to explore areas of her brother’s life for which she had incomplete knowledge. I found watching her being asked to dissect her own work, which includes vivid descriptions of hearing her mother’s stifled wails at night and details about her brother’s earlier suicide attempt, physically painful, though she answered the question with confidence. It is almost impossible to understand the pain of seeing a sibling’s life cut short unless it has happened to you. Part of the problem is that your suffering does not fit into the main narratives of grief. You are not a parent who will tragically outlive your child, you are not a partner who has lost your one true love, and you are not a child who will grow up without a parent.
In A Loss, Khromeychuk successfully conveys the depth and complexity of her relationship with her brother, Volodya. She is fearless in describing the different levels and conflicting emotions involved in sibling relationships. Volodya made her laugh a lot, and she adored him. Though Khromeychuk is a successful academic, she felt intellectually inferior to her brother. His arguments always seemed to flow out effortlessly. He was also strikingly handsome: she describes him in his youth as someone who looked like he had just stepped out of a teen magazine shoot.
In later life, Volodya was sometimes impossible to reach. She would often try, but to her sadness and frustration, his mind always seemed to be elsewhere. He once wrote the family a letter telling them not to worry and reminding them not to judge his state of mind from a distance. He signed the letter “Dr. House,” presumably a joke about the fact that he hadn’t left a return address and never really had a permanent one.
Like Khromeychuk, I also lost a sibling, though my sister’s death was only remarkable in other people’s eyes because of how quick and sudden it was. She suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage at the age of 30 and died within two minutes — alone, before work, in her London flat. The doctors said that, even if her partner had been there, there was nothing he could have done to save her.
I was in Ukraine when it happened, at work. I remember coming down in the lift to leave the office and meeting a co-worker on his way up. He embraced me and said, “You never get over the shock.” He knew my grief before I did. At that point, Ukraine had been fighting against Russian-backed forces for almost two years. The death of my sister was a droplet compared to an entire country in mourning: first the shootings on the Maidan in broad daylight, then the complete breakdown in relations with relatives in Russia, the loss of territory, and, finally, the thousands who were dying in the East while others came back with permanent injuries. When I would tell people in Ukraine that my sister had died, their faces would barely twitch, and a lot of the time, they would say nothing in response.
When the first 100 people died on the Maidan in February 2014, there was a national outpouring of grief. Over time, the deaths in the East became a mere statistic. The grief is only revealed during spats on social media, where Ukrainians sometimes come across as partisan or hysterical to outsiders. My own position of relative privilege — as someone who was choosing to be in Ukraine at that moment, when many of my Ukrainian friends wanted to get out, fearing conscription or the possibility that the frontlines might shift — taught me to keep my mouth shut. My fear that I had not been a good sister only made shutting it easier.
As I walked home from Khromeychuk’s talk, I felt nauseated. In her book, the author writes that it took her a long time to realize that her feelings of nausea were a sign of fear. She was scared of being judged for telling the whole story. For me, the experience is almost like being in a stupor, and I feel overpowered by a cycle of incoherent thoughts and unpleasant memories. Normally I hit an imaginary brick wall and manage to pull myself out. But several hours after the talk, I was able to admit a truth — that, in the years before my sister died, I didn’t have the relationship with her that I would like to tell people about, and that this was my fault. I finished Khromeychuk’s book the next day.
Khromeychuk told the audience that she wrote the book because, unlike other families who have suffered losses during Ukraine’s war, she can use her fluency in English to convey to a wider audience how war affects an entire society. She finished her talk by saying that writing the book had given her a form of closure: she had nothing further to say on the topic and had no plans to stage her play again.
I will never be prepared to open the place in my mind that Khromeychuk has, and I cannot see the noble cause that I would be aiding. But A Loss helped me to see that imperfect family relationships are universal and that there is nothing to be ashamed of. There were many great moments: my sister made me laugh like no one else does. I like to think that, if she had lived, I would have matured and made things up to her. Unfortunately, regret seems to grow, not dissipate, with time, so I will have to find another way.
In A Loss, Khromeychuk shows that the experience of grief transcends individual circumstance and in fact, unites us. In doing so, she connects readers to the collective grief that most Ukrainians are unconsciously carrying. I hope that, when the book is published in Ukraine, it will help people there to work through the pain and trauma of the last seven years.