Book review: Moonlight in Odessa

By Janet Skeslien Charles

I first became acquainted with Janet Skeslien Charles’s debut novel at the beginning of 2010, when it was featured on BBC Radio 4 as Book at Bedtime. For two weeks, every day I looked forward to my 15-minute escape to the Ukraine and the world of Daria, via the voice of Jane Collingwood. I wasn’t expecting to read the book as well – in the same way that I tend not to read a novel when I have already seen the film version – but when I saw it by chance on a bookshelf in the library I couldn’t resist.

And I’m glad I didn’t.

Moonlight in Odessa is the story of Daria, a smart Ukrainian girl who lives in Odessa with her grandmother, Boba. She loves English and, despite having to dodge the advances of both her boss and a local mobster, she is happy to work as a secretary at an Israeli shipping company where she can use the language on a daily basis. Daria has also a second job as interpreter at Soviet Unions, an online matchmaking service for Western men looking for an Eastern European wife.

Despite witnessing all that is wrong with the mail-order bride system, Daria is encouraged by her grandmother to move to California and to marry Tristan. He seems dedicated and reliable, everything that she is looking for in a relationship. However, crossing oceans and diving into a new culture with a heart full of enthusiasm might not be enough for Daria to distance herself from the life she left behind. Especially from the men that she left waiting for her.

Having listened to an abridged version of the book, reading the book was a little like meeting old friends and getting to know them better, with all their quirks, beliefs and dreams. I also enjoyed taking a virtual tour of Odessa, whose beauty Daria never stops to praise, and the cultural differences that she encounters in California are portrayed in a very clever and funny way.

In fact, humour is a strong feature throughout Moonlight in Odessa. This is often dark humour, which makes you smile but, at the same time, allows you to recognise the surrealism of the situations or the weaknesses of the people described.

An added bonus is the respect that Janet Skeslien Charles shows towards translators, whom she gives space on her website to talk about their experiences working on this novel:

Translating Daria by Manon Smits, the Dutch translator
Odessa on my Mind by Astrid Arz, the German translator
Traveling to Odessa by Ylva Stålmarck, the Swedish translator


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