Trigger warning for rape.
It feels like a century since I started reading The Eighth Life, by Nino Haratishwili (and translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin)—but not because it was slow. It felt like a century because its plot spans almost the entire twentieth century, crammed into just under 1,000 pages. In this monumental novel, Niza Jashi recounts the history of her family since the Bolshevik Revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union to her niece, Brilka. Not only do we get a ground view of Soviet history from a country not often seen in English-language fiction (Georgia) but also the troubled history of a family of battling parents and children.
After a brief introduction that puts Niza and Brilka together on a trip across Europe, Niza turns her attention to the 1910s and her great-grandmother, Stasia. Stasia is the privileged daughter of a chocolatier in Tbilisi. She dreams of being a ballet dancer for the Ballets Russes, but infatuation and history get in the way. Stasia marries a White (later Red) Army officer after a whirlwind courtship before the officer heads off to fight. This is the first in a series of couples divided by war. Sadly, no one in the Jashi clan ever seems to find lasting happiness again.
Niza’s tale contains numerous tales of family members who grow apart because of war or allegiance to (or rebellion against) the Soviet regime. Over and over, parents push their children to become their ideal next generation. Sometimes this means coddling them so much that they don’t understand the dangers of speaking their mind. In others, it means taking a child away from one parent to raise them in Moscow. Every attempt at perfection implodes and leaves members of the family bearing irreconcilable grudges against each other. If The Eighth Life had been set in a capitalist country, I think the children of each generation would have run as far and as fast as they could. In fact, the later generations do just this. But because this novel is primarily set in Tbilisi, Georgia, it’s not possible for the Jashis to do anything other than live in close quarters, stewing in resentment.
Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin beautifully translate this sprawling novel. Haratischwilli’s writing style—which jumps from character to character as Niza shares everything she ever learned about her family—never drags. The plot also never calms down, in part because of history and in part because of intra-family psychological warfare. I’m not sure if I would have been able to read this book in one long session. Deadlines for NetGalley and Edelweiss had me hitting pause on The Eighth Life to read other books. I was always able to pick right back up where I left off, but refreshed from a small break from the Jashis. This might sound like whining; it’s really not. It’s just that there is a lot in the 944 pages of The Eighth Life. Readers should be prepared for a long haul.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.