Oksana Zabuzhko centres her novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets on a practice of young Ukrainian girls burying secrets items together with groups of friends (no boys allowed). This functions as the inspiration for the title and the guiding metaphor for this lengthy novel of over 700 pages. That metaphor is that Ukrainian society on the eve of the Orange Revolution in 2003 still struggled with the legacy of secrets from its Soviet past. The centring of the title in a girls-only game also sets the scene for a novel that interplays feminist politics with the post-Soviet situation. This is a highly political book that occasionally descends into tedious didactism, but does a good job overall in keeping the politics under the control of the narrative.
The main character, Daryna Goshchynska, is a female documentary presenter nearing her fortieth birthday in a culture that values women for their looks. As the story opens a photograph is brought to her attention depicting a woman, Olena Dovgan, in the partisan uniform of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army standing along with four male colleagues. Daryna's attempts to unearth the secret of Olena's story for a documentary forms the backdrop for the narrative structure. It is just the backdrop because this long meandering novel draws on many threads before pulling them together in the final third. That is one of the novel's main failings: waiting nearly 500 pages to let the reader into the secret of where this is all heading.
There is a final woman who looms large throughout the novel, an artist Vlada Matusevych. She was Daryna's close friend who had died in a car accident shortly before the novel's opening. Vlada had incorporated that tradition of the girls' game of abandoning secrets into her art and it was through her Secrets exhibition that Daryna learns about the tradition. Vlada's story functions as the backdrop to the backdrop, but her artwork provides the theme for the whole narrative.
This is primarily a novel about these three women: one alive, one recently deceased, and one long dead. That female focus picks up the girls-only theme of the title and is extended through the feminist reflections that pepper the text. It is not, however, a women-only novel with many of the other characters male, including Daryna's partner Adrian, who is the narrator at several points in the novel and becomes an increasingly important character as the story develops towards its conclusion. One factor that unites most of these male characters is the reduction of women to sex objects, a theme that is introduced with the photograph in the opening chapter as Daryna's male colleague asks which of the men she thought that Olena was sleeping with.
Running alongside this theme of male objectiviation of women is Daryna's interior thoughts about sex and menstruation. As a long meandering novel written in a stream of consciousness style and containing copious sexualisation The Museum of Abandoned Secrets invites an obvious comparison with James Joyce's Ulysses. The sexual content is, however, a strong part of Zabuzhko's oeuvre as she is best known for Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex that explores similar themes of Ukrainian women, sex, and male dominance. In fact (in fiction?) that earlier novel is referenced by one of the characters in this novel.
The Museum of Abandoned Secrets is a clever literary telling of Ukraine's more recent history and makes for a fascinating read at a time when the country is again dominating the international news. Unfortunately many readers will not stay the course to the novel's end due to its meandering nature. Much of the middle section could have been abbreviated and some of the thread gathering of the final third should have been foreshadowed earlier in order to keep more readers reading. It is not helped in the English by a poor translation by Nina Shevchuk-Murray, a Ukrainian now based in the United States, for whom this was her second novel translation. She has a tendency to over-translate for an American market, as typified when a character with a headache is advised to take an Advil (the equivalent in British English would be recommending Anadin). Most of the translation is fine, but the rendering of dialogue is often painful to read, especially in the attempt to represent a Russian speaker struggling with Ukrainian and the dialogue of those termed yokels in the translation.
There are problems with this text that a good editor and a better translator could have resolved, but overall I recommend reading this book and having the patience to read it to the end.