Night Train to Odesa

Night Train to Odesa, Jen Stout, Polygon £17.99 279 pp.

As with many people, I followed events in Ukraine after the Russian invasion of February 22nd 2022 very closely but at an inevitable remove on the other side of Europe, in fragmented form on social media and in news outlets. This book fills out the bare bones of that terrible year with first-hand, on-the-ground experience. Here we have a lucidly written personal narrative in the style of ‘The New Journalism’ of the 1960s/70s, where the author makes use of many of the devices associated with literary fiction without becoming the story herself — the focus is always on Ukraine, the Ukrainian struggle and its helpers, employing a subjective perspective, extensive imagery, whilst immersing herself in the stories as she reported and wrote them. In traditional journalism, the journalist is invisible; facts are meant to be reported objectively, but in this book, Jen Stout is an active agent, reacting emotionally and intelligently to the horrors and the hopes she discovers.

The war is the main focus, yet it is also the story of a woman diverted from her course into becoming a war reporter, her gradual approach to ‘the red zone’ where the fighting is most intense, the lessons learned along the way and the people who taught them. Despite her relative youth, Jen Stout was far from new to journalism when she travelled to Moscow just prior to the invasion, nor was she in the Russian sphere for the first time – a Russophile since a high school trip, she had learned the language and had travelled widely in Eastern Europe, and subsequently worked for the BBC in Scotland, ending up as a producer at Radio Shetland covering all sorts of local stories after a decade away from her native isles. Yet it had been her aim to live in Russia long before the fellowship that finally brought her there in early 2022.

The Russia she found on arrival was one that made her uncomfortable whenever Ukraine was mentioned – perfectly pleasant and rational acquaintances would mutter about Nazis, as if they had swallowed the propaganda Putin’s regime were spouting. Fellows were carefully instructed not to be politically active in any way, and once the massed Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine, the fellowship in Moscow was suspended. Rather than go back to the UK, Jen Stout decided to investigate the Ukrainian refugee exodus on the Romanian border and, once there, was drawn to Odesa. 

A previous trip to Ukraine meant she had a network of friends and acquaintances further east and Kharkiv — then under severe pressure from the Russian advance — beckoned, but getting there without press affiliation or budget was hard. The unfolding story demonstrates her fortitude and ingenuity as a freelancer in finding backing for her initiatives, her innate sense of where stories might be found, and determination to endure hardship as she travels across the country, carrying all her gear on her back, a team of one.

In the course of the year 2022, after two brief trips back to the UK for necessary training, she was pulled ever closer to the front, ‘the red zone’ around the now infamous Bakhmut. Stout sought out the people caught between the lines, the communities destroyed and those trying to assist them. She learned quickly, experiencing her first missile attack, and her lessons come rapid fire — the corpse by the roadside may be a booby-trap; it is safer to be behind two walls than one, should your tower block be hit. She observes how people learn to live with war, how some even seem to revel in the sheer drama of it all, and how complex loyalties suddenly simplify and harden once war begins.

Particular focus is given to her contact with PEN Ukraine, which leads to a mini-bus trip from Kharkiv to a small village in search of a disappeared dissident writer, a bus which she describes as being full of philosophers. The story they hear on arrival from the writer’s parents and his surviving son is harrowing, yet despite grief their kindness to these visitors from the city and their gratitude is striking — the mother’s soliloquy is truly memorable. 

So to is the underground cafe and bakery in Kharkiv, run by women, where people gather during missile strikes. Indeed it is often the voices of the women that Stout records, among those providing aid as well as the victims. Her friendship with one female writer in particular stands out, Victoria Amelina, a novelist whose role in the conflict is travelling around identifying sites of war-crimes. In a brief epilogue, Stout states sadly that she had been killed in Kramatorsk when a restaurant was struck — a restaurant the author herself had frequented.

Although the text is focused on the sights and sense impressions of Ukraine during war, often recorded in a highly visual manner, at a deeper level lies the story of a young woman gradually becoming someone new — outwardly, a battle-hardened war reporter. In a climactic scene Jen Stout describes how she mistakenly joins a rescue mission to evacuate civilians from ‘the red zone’, and for the first time is one of the scrum of reporters and photographers as they jostle for position. She is struck by how intrusive some are, attempting to capitalise on the misery of their subjects.

This scene seems to confirm, for both her and her readers, that this is not what her journey has been about. She is not here to profit, or to forge a career. The people she is happiest among are the medics and charity workers. It is their empathy that she shares, and wishes above all to illustrate. In ‘Night Train in Odesa’ she does so brilliantly. There will be many books about the war in Ukraine, but few will match the textured subtlety of this fine debut.

Night Train to Odesa is available to pre-order from Birlinn Books here.

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