Interview by Anna Morgan
Since the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, many new books have been written about the country, primarily focused on its history, national identity, and sadly – the ongoing war with Russia. The book we are talking about today is something very different. Leonora Meriel, an emerging British writer, has released her first book ever, and surprisingly, it’s set entirely in Ukraine. The Woman Behind the Waterfall focuses on the fascinating beauty of Ukraine’s landscapes and the modern life of an ordinary rural family. It’s a fictional story of three generations of women in one family, all tied together by similar worries, the search for happiness and love.
Having come from Ukraine, reading Leonora’s book made me feel back home. For those who have never visited, it’ll be like a trip to the country, like a taste of its food, like an excursion to the village, glimpsing into people’s houses. There are so many little details ‘embroidered’ into the canvas of the story, that they create an almost living painting with a feeling of presence in the place, the moment, the emotion of the book’s character.
There are a ton of amazing ‘tasty’ comparisons. For example this one:
… Mother’s face, pale and winter, flat and wide and the most beautiful thing in the world to me. Mother’s warm body like bread from the oven. Like a blanket around me on a dark, snowy morning, the cold well water in the midsummer dust… I want to disappear into the dough of your body, pushing myself in… and I would be safe forever.
Another special thing about the book is the use of many Ukrainian words: lastivka (swallow), dorohenka (darling), mamusya (mother), tato (father), kistochki (berry stones) etc. They are used in the text alongside English translation. This gives a flavor of the sound of the Ukrainian language.
Especially sweet are the descriptions of details of the household: a chipped bowl, a wooden spoon. There’s a great description of a Ukrainian village market with salted salo, whole rabbits and dirty carrots just taken out of the soil.
This book is full of many tiny details that will make you experience Ukraine without ever being there or remind you of home if you were born there
So many tiny details that will make you experience Ukraine without ever being there or remind you of home if you were born there: dark rye bread, gardens full of lilacs, ‘not too skinny village women in colorful summer dresses’. Even the flowers in a glass jar will remind you of a Ukrainian field – white and yellow daisies, golden dandelions, tumbling poppies.
On the eve of Leonora’s book launch we sat down for an interview. Here’s a short glimpse into our conversation.
Where are these tiny but ‘tasty’ details coming from? Personal experience or stories you heard from other people?
All from personal experience of course. The details of rural Ukrainian life absolutely fascinate me – the chipped bowl, the wooden spoon or even peeling potatoes with a knife versus a peeler. Our life in the West is so sterilised and modernised. In Ukraine, in an ordinary village house you can see the centuries – those old-fashioned stoves, jars of pickles and jam made from the gardens. I loved those!
When traveling around villages in Western Ukraine I saw houses that still didn’t have running water in them, which means you would have to bring water from the well every time you wanted to cook or clean. Alongside that, the family might have access to the internet and live a modern life, have modern jobs.
The language is something I absolutely love about Ukraine. Lastivka – one of my favorite words
I’ve spent over 10 years in Ukraine. My children grew up there, and they were exposed to words like ‘zaichyk’ (sweet little rabbit), ‘ptashechka’ (little bird) or ‘lastivka’. That’s so special! We don’t have that in English. In Ukrainian you can make anything sound sweeter – almost like a language of love, even with the names of household items. The Ukrainian fairy tales that my children grew up with were full of these.
In Ukrainian you can make anything sound sweeter – almost like a language of love
There’s quite a lot written about the iconic Ukrainian samohon (homemade vodka) & salo (raw pork fat). Have you tried these?
Yes I did! Samohon is very strong, but I loved it! You definitely need to eat ‘salo’ (pig’s fat) with it to protect your stomach. The best kind is the smoked one. What I did find hard was convincing myself to try a raw egg, still warm from the hen. I remember being laughed at for not understanding that it was a tradition. It was delicious, but it took me a long time to understand that I was really meant to eat it. I had always been taught not to eat eggs raw!
After spending 10 years in Ukraine and having your fist book set there, do you have any inspiration left for more books about Ukraine?
Oh definitely! Modern Ukraine, needs to be explored. There are so many fascinating topics, such as: how identity is developing in modern Ukraine, how the generations are growing up with influences from different geographical neighbours, the issue of language. So yes, definitely, there will be more of my books about Ukraine.
Ukraine is a living history right now. If you go now you’ll see Ukraine in a state of survival in spite of everything – the economic hardships, the war. I feel it’s in the Ukrainian nature – to flourish despite everything.
For someone who has never been to Ukraine, would you recommend going?
I would definitely recommend going, any time. Ukraine is a living history right now. If you go now you’ll see Ukraine in a state of survival in spite of everything – the economic hardships, the war. I feel it’s in the Ukrainian nature – to flourish despite everything. Western Ukraine is always beautiful, full of wonderful culture. For travelling I always recommend my favorite place – Chernivtsi. This city represents everything I love the most about Ukraine, an incredibly beautiful city, set in the most extraordinary nature. Everyone is welcoming, funny and relaxed.
It must be overwhelmingly exciting to launch your first book. What does it mean for you?
It is like living a dream. Ever since I remember I wanted to write. I got sidetracked by the exciting world of business, studied a lot, started businesses and enjoyed doing the things I did. But I always knew these different life experiences would be good for my writing. From now on though I plan to concentrate on writing, and writing only.
And as I said earlier, I’m planning to write more books about Ukraine. During my time there I traveled a lot and took a lot of notes. Ukraine is a huge source of untold stories and I can’t wait to tell some of them!
Ukraine is a huge source of untold stories and I can’t wait to tell some of them!
Leonora’s book The Woman behind the Waterfall is now available for purchase on Amazon. The launch of the book, with some readings, autograph session and bubbles & nibbles is planned for 13 October at Waterstones in Teddington. See details of this event here. If you can’t make it to this launch, look out for announcements on Leonora’s website and Facebook, as she’s planning more events and presentations in London and around the UK.
The book’s promo trailer