A quiet novel about a woman who returns home after some time away—not unusual in itself, perhaps, but it is when the home she returns to is in Chernobyl.
As one might expect, life is both quiet and grim in Chernobyl (or Tschernowo, as it's referred to by the Russian narrator, who's also the title character). Baba Dunja is recognized as one of the pioneers of the region, for she is one of only two current residents who lived in Chernobyl “before the reactor” and has returned to make some kind of life for herself, though it’s a grim one. Not even half the houses are inhabited on the main road, and everyone not from the region—primarily those residents of the nearest town, Malyschi—shuns everyone from Chernobyl, fearing they’ll be contaminated by radiation. She and her neighbors occupy themselves with getting food and just getting through the day. Baba Dunja has a daughter, Irina, a medical doctor in Germany, as well as a granddaughter whom she has never met. Mother and daughter have a desultory correspondence, and Irina very much wants Baba Dunja to leave the “death zone.” And while Baba Dunja has never met her granddaughter, she has a picture and occasional glimpses of her life through Irina’s letters. By the end of the story we learn that the image of her family Baba Dunja has been encouraged to create is out of kilter with reality. The central event in the narrative is the death of a man who comes to Chernobyl with his healthy daughter to get revenge on his wife—and the townspeople, especially Baba Dunja, recognize how foolish it is to undertake such a venture with such a motivation.
With quiet understatement, Bronsky offers us a glimpse of life in the radioactive abyss.