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Books review: What to read in December

BY James Walton

6th Dec 2022 Book Reviews

Books review: What to read in December

From a woman trapped in a Victorian asylum to the magical Christmas traditions of Ukraine, these are the books you should read this month

The Darlings of the Asylum by Noel O’Reilly

After the autumn rush, December is usually what’s described as a “quiet” (ie, “rubbish”) month for new novels. Somehow, though, The Darlings of the Asylum must have slipped through the net, because this a cracking piece of gothic fiction.  

The narrator is 23-year-old Violet, a talented artist who dreams of making her own way in the world. The trouble is that it’s 1886, when such dreams are seen not merely as selfish and unladylike, but as possible evidence of insanity. After all, her mother has lined up a nice rich man called Felix for her to marry. Unfortunately, Violet has taken a shine to the local bohemian Mr Lilley, whose racy ideas cause her to suddenly (and, let’s face it, Freudianly) start painting “flowers with gaping ravenous mouths and upright poking stamens”.  

Artist painting flowers

So it is that Violet turns Felix down—and not long afterwards wakes up in a lunatic asylum with no memory of what happened next. Worse still, the place is run by Dr Rastrick, who’s all the more sinister for believing that he’s doing good by weeding out women dangerous to society.  

O’Reilly powerfully conjures up the nightmare of finding yourself stuck in an asylum, apparently for life, while still having your wits about you. Violet also writes about her fellow inmates with a convincing mix of sympathy and horror—if sometimes perhaps striking a suspiciously 21st century note as she battles the patriarchy.

"The narrative rattles along irresistibly all the way to its suitably gothic climax"

And yet, the novel turns out to be more complicated, and ultimately more interesting than just another self-congratulatory reminder of how much better we are than those benighted Victorians. For one thing, Felix really is a nice man, happy to let Violet “scandalise my acquaintances with your opinions”. For another, Mr Lilley mightn’t be quite the feminist-friendly goodie he seems. And—whether because of the oppression she’s suffered or not—Violet’s sanity isn’t necessarily as solid as she thinks either (although this doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be allowed to mess up her life as she sees fit).  

Happily, as these questions bubble away, the book never forgets its story-telling duties. Instead, the narrative rattles along irresistibly all the way to its suitably gothic climax.

The Darlings of the Asylum

A Ukrainian Christmas by Nadiyka Gerbish and Yaroslav Hrytsak

In Ukraine, Christmas comes but twice a year: December 25 and January 7. That’s because of the country’s position—often to its great cost of course—on the border between Western Europe and Russia, with their historically different calendars and historically different forms of Christianity (Western and Orthodox).  

Nadiyka Gerbish and Yaroslav Hrytsak

Nadiyka Gerbish and Yaroslav Hrytsak

As a result, this charmingly illustrated book ranges more widely than the title might suggest, discussing customs from all across the continent, up to and including the strange British taste for Santa’s grottos in department stores. Not surprisingly, though, there’s little doubt which side of Europe the authors prefer. 

As they point out, under Soviet rule Christmas was banned in Ukraine altogether. And even now that it’s back in Russia too, they clearly don’t think much of their Eastern neighbour’s Yuletide ways, where carols are barely sung and nativity plays regarded as unacceptably Western. (In Ukraine, by contrast, nativity plays have long been used for political purposes, with Herod represented in former times by Stalin and these days by Putin.)  

"This charmingly illustrated book ranges more widely than the title might suggest"

Nonetheless, the book’s tone is essentially celebratory, proud of how Ukraine has blended together various Christmas influences from elsewhere, while also establishing traditions of its own. These traditions, we’re told, “are deeply rooted in the country’s history of sorrow, courage and resistance”, not least at a time that’s “not so different from the very first Christmas” when Judea was under occupation by a bullying empire.  

Here, for example, is what happens in the build-up to what seems to be the bigger of the two big days, where Western Advent is replaced by something more sombre. And, should you want them, the recipes for most of the dishes mentioned are given in the book… 

Christmas kutia

Christmas kutia

“The Christmas Fast begins on 28 November and lasts until 6 January. During this time, Christian believers follow a kind of vegan diet: no animal products are permitted (although on certain days fish is allowed) and the meals consist mainly of vegetables, porridge, beans and mushrooms. It’s also forbidden to dance, sing or organise parties, including weddings. This is a time for the preparation of one’s heart: an opportunity to focus on what’s important, drawing strength and joy from the anticipation of Christmas.  

On the last day, 6 January, it’s customary to commemorate the hardships of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem by not eating anything until the first star appears. If the winter is snowy, children, who are allowed only a light snack, go sledging until they notice the first star. They then rush home, with cheeks red from the frost and fun, full of excitement for Christmas Eve.  

Dinner on Christmas Eve is known as the Holy Supper. It’s a symbol of communion and care for each other, with the whole family gathered around one table, and meals served not as individual portions, but placed in the middle of the table in painted earthenware dishes and passed around with a smile. This is the last day of the fast, so all meals are prepared from foods without dairy products and meat. There should be twelve dishes. This number, too, is symbolic: the twelve months in a year, the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles.  

"On a table covered with an embroidered tablecloth, there will be one plate more than there are people in the house"

There is no mandatory list of dishes, but, traditionally, there should be kutia (a sweet grain pudding with poppy seeds), uzvar (a fruit drink) and pastries. Other dishes traditionally prepared are borsch with dumplings, mushroom soup, varenyky (half-moon shaped dumplings) stuffed with potatoes or stewed cabbage, holubtsi (cabbage rolls), pickled herring, roasted carp, stewed beans and jellied fish.  

On a table covered with an embroidered tablecloth, there will be one plate more than there are people in the house. This ritual is observed in memory of deceased relatives, but also as an invitation to any lonely strangers who might pass by in need of shelter and community. The floor is covered with hay as a reminder of the humble conditions in which Jesus was born.  

There is a lavish variety of recipes for even the most traditional dishes. Ukraine, covering approximately 600,000 square kilometres, is a beautiful patchwork of different backgrounds. The traditional kutia is made with wheat. However, writer Lyuba Yakimchuk, originally from the eastern Luhansk region, says that kutia in her parents’ house was made with rice. Now that same house is under occupation.  

Whatever the differences, the dishes are made from scratch, have rich flour and a deeply rooted history. By the way, the unmarried girls in the family are forbidden to lick the makohin (pestle), used to crush the poppy seeds in the makitra (clay mixing bowl). There is a superstition that if a girl licks from the makohin, her future husband will be bald—but most girls don’t care.” 

Ukrainian Christmas

A Ukrainian Christmas (Sphere, £16.99)

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