Maria Matios' Hardly Ever Otherwise combines elements of different genres - family saga, mystery, and novels exploring human psychology - to great effect, giving us a gripping and yet profound account of events and emotions affecting the lives of country folk in Western Ukraine. Set in the times of the Austro-Hungarian empire around the time of the First World War, the novel addresses enduring themes - family, love, and community, to name but a few.
The role of morals in how we live our lives is a key theme of the book: although morality in many ways strongly structures the lives of this small, rural community, Matios shows how easily it can be abandoned: it only takes a moment for the sometimes cruel vagaries of fate, or a swell of emotion in your breast, and everyday morals can fly out of the window. Unfortunately for some of the characters, such as the battered Dmytryk, these transgressions often come at a price. Matios cleverly works up the tension around the twisted yarns of the book's central mystery (which I won't spoil for you here!) and plays upon the grey area between fantasy and reality as young wife Dotska bears witness to the Cain and Abel-like battles between her husband and his brothers.
Matio's portrait of a certain point in Ukraine's history was enthusiastically received in its native country; it was seen as filling in a historical gap by its use of local Hutsul (highland Ukrainian) dialect and vividly portraying of what are, for most people, long-forgotten ways of living. We see food customs and weddings, legal wrangling and pagan rituals carried out by the local wise woman, Marynka Godspirit. Although it is primarily an entertaining rather than an educational book, the author's exploration of the inner emotions of her characters - especially the women - is a reminder of the constraints faced by our ancestors (whether you are Ukrainian or not); the village's judgement weighs heavy on their actions, even if they do not always choose to pay it heed.
I sped through this book in a single day - although I'm not usually a fan of mysteries, the believable and often sympathetic characters (particularly Dotska and Petrunia), and Matios' ability to make us wonder what their motives really are had me hooked from the first chapter.