A Taste of Hunger by Barbara Joan Scott

The heartbreaking catastrophe currently playing out in Ukraine has once again forced the scattering of that country’s peoples across the globe. But what we see happening in 2022 is only the most recent iteration of an exodus that has been ongoing for centuries: Ukrainians leaving their homeland to escape starvation, conflict and persecution.  

Barbara Joan Scott’s novel, The Taste of Hunger, set in the early decades of the previous century, is the story of Taras Zalesky, a young Ukrainian immigrant “fleeing the aftermath of the Great War,” whose journey brings him to Canada. In 1926, after an injury puts an end to his tenure working in the Ontario mines, he drifts westward and finds himself in Saskatchewan. Here, a chance encounter with a fellow Ukrainian in a hotel bar determines his future path. The man is fed up working the poor plot of land he received from the government, and Taras is only too willing to take the failing homestead off his hands.  

While traveling north to his new home, another encounter, this time with a Ukrainian family, further seals Taras’s fate: at a dilapidated farm where he stops for water, he meets 15-year-old Olena, who lives with her drunkard father Metro and her short-tempered aunt Varvara. Olena—smart, beautiful, filled with dreams, longing for an education and a possible life elsewhere—is instead forced by her father to marry Taras Zalesky, who is twice her age, a man of brute instinct and base urges for whom she feels nothing but contempt.  

Despite their differences, Taras and Olena work hard to carve a life for themselves out of the unpromising Saskatchewan wilderness. But, though dependent on one another for corporeal and spiritual sustenance, there is little affection between them. Years pass, Olena becomes pregnant and gives birth. But she never warms to her husband: he can satisfy her physical needs, but in every other respect she is frustrated and is soon appalled by what she has become. Eventually, they sell their land and move to the town of Eldergrove, where they take over a general store. By this time, they have two children: daughters June and May. The children give Olena purpose, but her hunger for a different kind of life never fades and she is always on the alert in case a means of escape presents itself. For his part, Taras embarks on a series of casual affairs. But, though a serial philanderer, he remains a jealous husband who is tormented by thoughts of his beautiful young wife being unfaithful.  

Scott’s taut, moving, sometimes brutal narrative, which crosses generations and is told from multiple perspectives, is a tragic tale of two people fatally mismatched but thrust together by circumstance whose moral failings wreak misfortune on all who come within their sphere of influence. At a crucial moment, Taras’s and Olena’s hunger for gratification outside the marriage results in a horrific act of violence, and both are left harboring a dreadful secret. 

In her debut novel, Barbara Joan Scott tells a story filled with fierce passion, wayward desire and thwarted dreams, a story that skirts the edges of melodrama without making the plunge. The Taste of Hunger also provides a compulsive read and leaves us pondering the darkness that resides in every human heart. 

Barbara Joan Scott’s first book, The Quick, won the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize and the Howard O’Hagan Award for Best Collection of Short Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Henry Kreisel Award for Best First Book. In 2015 she received the Lois Hole Award for Editorial Excellence. The Taste of Hunger is her debut novel. She lives in Calgary.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Freehand Books (Sept. 1 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 350 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1990601189
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1990601187

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Ian Colford’s short fiction has appeared in many literary publications, in print and online. His work has been shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Journey Prize, the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and others. His latest novel, The Confessions of Joseph Blanchard, was the winner of the 2022 Guernica Prize and was published by Guernica Editions in 2023. He lives in Halifax.