Away from the Dead

David Bergen | Away from the Dead

Reviewed by: Stewart Goodings

As the Russian war against Ukraine enters its third year, reading David Bergen’s latest novel is a stark reminder of how war, violence, and upheaval have, in past times, shattered the lives of people in that part of eastern Europe.

The title, Away from the Dead, is a rueful yet hopeful indicator of a story that take us to Ukraine in the early part of the 20th century, then up to and including the confusing and battle-scarred period of the Russian Revolution and the First World War.

The characters are memorable: Julius Lehn, the bookish atheist living in a Mennonite community near Kyiv, his loving but doomed wife Kakta, sister and brother Inna and Sablin, peasants living on the estate of Heinrich, a prosperous landowner whose property is eventually ransacked by Bolshevik marauders. Their stories are war stories, and love stories, and the reader inhabits their dreams, fears, and sadness, as well as their occasional joys and contentments.

Bergen’s prose is spare and eloquent, and he wastes not a word in portraying the fates of his protagonists. As a reader of several of Bergen’s earlier novels (The Time in Between was a Giller winner), I was intrigued by how different this novel is to his previous books. His own Manitoba Mennonite heritage is no doubt an influence on the theme and details of this book.

What a treat for us on Denman to have one of Canada’s most renowned authors at this year’s Festival.