One woman navigates the corruption, controversy, and moral ambiguities of Ukraine’s darkest port city in Midnight in Odessa.
Odessa, a beautiful, deadly seaport in Ukraine, is the setting of Janet Skeslien Charles’ debut novel and serves as the ballast to a plot that spins pleasingly out of control as it winds its way across countries and cultures. Daria, the whip-smart narrator, leads an engrossing tour of the collisions and collusions of money, sex, power, and romance she encounters—both in her job under a Western boss and in her foray as purveyor and participant in the world of email-order brides. While Daria identifies with the desperation of Ukrainian women to escape the host of financial and cultural burdens they shoulder, she also slowly becomes aware of the stifling and often abusive arrangements the service actually perpetuates. The choices she faces as she decides whether to become the bride of a Western man or stay with a compelling but dangerous suitor in Odessa form the central conflict, but it is Charles’ moving exploration of the intricate sacrifices of male-female relationships that resonates as the novel’s emotional core. The pace and language falter at points, becoming repetitive as Daria expounds on her feelings about her every decision, but the richness of Charles’ imagination and the breadth of her narrative ambition make up for much of the shaky ground. The forgiving reader will be rewarded in spades with a satisfying and original ending, an admirable fidelity to place, and a set of wholly realized, achingly human characters.