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Kalyna’s Song
by Lisa Grekul
Coteau Books
Trade Paperback, 385 pages, $19.95

reviewed by Joe Wiebe
posted March 11, 2005

Nominated for the 2003 Books in Canada First Novel award, Kalyna’s Song marks the auspicious debut of Alberta-born Lisa Grekul, who currently lives in Vancouver where she teaches in the English department at UBC. Grekul is up against some stiff competition for the award (especially Michel Basilières’ Black Bird and John Bemrose’s The Island Walkers), but the nomination should help make up for the book’s absence of publicity since its release last fall.

Ukrainian-Canadian culture is soaked right into this novel’s pages. Its protagonist, Colleen Lutzak, is a talented musician and gifted student growing up in St.Paul, Alberta. From her first public singing performance (and, coincidentally, her first kiss) at thirteen, through high school and then on to a year spent at an international college in Swaziland, Colleen struggles with her identity. What does being Ukrainian mean for someone whose parents were born in Canada, and who herself cannot speak more than a few Ukrainian words?

The title connects to Colleen’s cousin Kalyna, with whom she shares a close bond. Kalyna (the Ukrainian equivalent for Colleen) is mentally challenged, and lives mostly in a world of her own, coming alive when Colleen plays Ukrainian music on guitar or piano. Eventually, Colleen learns that Kalyna has not always been this way, that she was married and had a child, but abuse from her husband led to a permanent breakdown.

Colleen is defined by extremes: she spends half the time believing she is better than everyone around her, and the other half debilitating herself with critical self-recriminations. She has trouble making friends. She cannot see that she is the sort of young woman that exudes confidence and intelligence in a way that challenges others, especially other girls. In other words, she is normal, and realistically portrayed. This is the main strength of this book. Readers might occasionally slap the book down in frustration over Colleen’s inability to accept herself for who she is, but ultimately that is the point of a coming-of-age story like this.

The second half of the novel sends Colleen about as far away from small-town Alberta as possible. Arriving in Swaziland at eighteen in 1989, she faces challenges trying to connect with people from around the world. In a late-night dorm-room discussion, fellow students describe their personal experiences: Nikola talks about the fall of the Berlin Wall; Katja tells of the arrival of democracy in Poland; Chilean Maria’s uncle has been missing since shortly after Pinochet took power; and then there is Shelagh from Belfast, and Hannah from Israel. Colleen has nothing to offer, and is embarrassed by her own lack of life experience and political awareness. It is a telling scene, if a little heavy-handed.

Kalyna’s Song suffers from being over-written and could have benefited from a stronger editorial eye. Certainly the prologue — a framing device that spoils several important events —could be discarded entirely. The novel might have suffered from being tied too closely to the author’s own experiences (Grekul is the same age as Colleen, grew up in St.Paul, is a musician, and lived in Swaziland). Still, it has a lot going for it — it is a page-turner with a complex, young, female protagonist that offers a compelling glimpse into the Ukrainian-Canadian community, and certainly deserves more attention than it has received so far.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver freelance writer who loves holubtsi and pyrizhky.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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