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by Janet Skeslien Charles
Reviewed by Tui Menzies

Moonlight in Odessa might refer to the light cast by that silvery orb on the waters of the Black Sea, but in this compelling debut novel by Janet Skeslien Charles moonlight takes on worlds of other meanings for its chief character, Daria Kirilenko.

Life in the Ukraine hadn't been easy under the Communist regime but after Perestroika it became even harder, with infrastructures in shambles and the Odessa mafia running the show. "Things were calmer now, since many of the contenders had been shot, fled the country with their illegal gains, overdosed, or become politicians." Daria is unable to find work in her field as a mechanical engineer, so when she lands a plummy position with an Israeli export company, Argonaut, she is determined to make the best of it, to make life better for herself and her beloved grandmother, Boba. Hardworking, smart, multilingual, wise to the ways of the Odessan alternative economy, she quickly carves out a niche for herself and becomes indispensable to her boss, David, by doing both of their jobs.

But things are never simple. David desires her intensely. At this point in the novel, a reader might be forgiven for thinking "oh not another one of these über wench combinations of beautiful, brainy, warm and natural with a terrific sense of humour...yawn". Charles definitely does not make us yawn but gives us instead a Daria who is able to parlay her boss's desire into a set of new false teeth for herself while fending off his advances. I was hooked at this point.

In an effort to make life more stable for herself and Boba, because she senses things might not last forever at Argonaut, Daria moonlights with "Soviet Unions", an international matchmaking agency under the directorship of the redoubtable Valentina Borisovna. Internet matchmaking is its own form of moonlight, trafficking in human beings while dealing in the currency of hope, dreams, and lies. Charles is excellent writing about the desperate Ukrainian women seeking a way out of the misery of their lives, and the flawed and damaged American men who essentially buy them but then, I enjoy clever use of wry humour to talk about serious things.

Ah yes, Love, that moonlight all of its own. I'll leave that for you to discover for yourself, as it is one of the main threads woven through Daria's story. I will only say that it appears in several manifestations and rings true in Charles's writing of all of them. I particularly like her understanding of the friendships of women.

What I can say with no spoilers whatsoever is that there is intelligent, thoughtful writing here, well mixed with acute observation and a lovely dry humour. As readers, we all know that good feeling when an author gives us a set of characters we can care about, telling their story so that we believe in it, holding us in the tale to the end. It's a good story that leaves its characters inhabiting our minds, lingering after the back cover has closed. Janet Skeslien Charles tells a good story. After a debut like this, I look forward to reading more from this author.

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