The Eighth Life, by Nino Haratischwili

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.

Lands of Lost Borders, by Kate Harris

31146782Kate Harris says near the beginning of her book, Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road, by explaining that she believes she was born in the wrong era. After reading her informative and impressive blend of travelogue and history of science and ecology, I agree—but I’m also glad that people with an undaunted desire to go out into the world and bring back their impressions for the rest of us still pop up from time to time. I would never be able to do what Harris and her fried, Mel Yule, did and spend ten months biking (biking!) along parts of the old Silk Road from Istanbul to Leh, in Ladakh. This book gave me the opportunity to tag along, like a Go Pro on their shoulders, on this remarkable journey.

The book opens with a prologue set about five years before Harris and Yule’s epic bike trip. Harris had always wanted to go to Tibet from China which, at the time, was hard to get to. She and Yule sneakily make their way through the checkpoints (mostly under). Once on the other side, Harris marvels at the landscape. She frequently feels an almost mystical connection to the mountains and sky while she pedals away. The trance-like feeling returns when she comes back with Yule from the other direction. For Harris, bicycling is meditative. It eases the restlessness she’s felt since childhood, when she wanted to travel to Mars.

After the prologue, Harris takes us back to her days growing up in Ontario and explains how she ended up on a bike in some of the most desolate places in Asia. It’s partly the fault of Marco Polo and partly Harris’ drive to go places no one else has gone. At first, Harris wanted to go to Mars, until she realized that she loves this planet and its people too much to leave forever if the opportunity arose. She started traveling extensively in college, taking every chance and grant she could to go to the Utah desert, a glacier in Alaska, and dozens of other places. While working on her Master’s at Oxford, Harris starts to study the Siachen Glacier, a contested area claimed by India and Pakistan. The glacier got Harris thinking about how arbitrary borders are and the effects of humans on delicate environments.

Harris breezes quickly through her biography to get to the good stuff: the trip. (The biographical section is very well written, though.) While she talks about the hardships of the road, Harris talks about the history of the Silk Road, flight, pollution, the history of Central Asia, endangered species (plant and animal), space exploration, and much more. I was engrossed by all of it. Most of all, I was profoundly impressed by Harris and Yule’s mental and physical fortitude. They put up with freezing and boiling temperatures, hunger, thirst, and fatigue—as well as doing battle with bureaucracy. But the book zips along so fluidly that I kept forgetting that it took them ten months to do this.

Lands of Lost Borders is one of those rare nonfiction books that I could have happily devoured another couple hundred pages once I finished. (Happily, Harris and Yule created a ten minute video with highlights of their journey that gave me a little more time to ride along on their shoulders.) This book was so full of interesting ideas and events that I would have had a good time. What really made this book for me was Harris’ sense of humor and accessible writing style. She never dwells too long on any one point. She avoids getting preachy, even when it would be very easy to do so. She leaves in just enough of the hard parts to make the book feel real without making us as miserable as she and Yule were on parts of the journey. Best of all, she is great at describing the best parts of the trip: seeing Marco Polo sheep and Caucasian peony, making connections with people when they shared no common language, and following in the footsteps of the brave people who trekked across mountains and deserts over the centuries. I am well away that I’m gushing, but I really enjoyed reading this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 21 August 2018.


Map of the Silk Road network (Image via University of Redlands)

The Kindness of Enemies, by Leila Aboulela

After 9/11, I feel like the western world got a crash course in Islam. The conversation about what jihad and spiritual authority in Islam are still going on. Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies takes that conversation and not only puts it into historical context but also gives us a story about three people who get caught out on the wrong side of religion, culture, and even race. Imam Shamil, an actual historical figure, provides a point of intersection for our three protagonists: a modern scholar, a nineteenth century Georgian princess, and the Imam’s first son.

Imam Shamil fought against Russian expansion into the Caucasus region, specifically Dagestan, from the early 1830s until 1859. He is now Natasha Hussein’s subject of study. Using Shamil as a focus, Natasha has studied what jihad looked like before the era of terrorism and suicide bombing. Unlike modern jihadis, Shamil was captured by the Russians and surrendered rather than fighting to the death. Natasha’s story is intercut with brief scenes from the life of Jamaleldin, the Imam’s son, who was taken as a hostage by Russian forces and from the captivity of Anna Elinichna, a Georgian princess who was taken captive by Shamil’s forces in 1854.

Through Anna Elinichna and Jamaleldin, we learn about Shamil’s attempts to preserve Dagestani independence, but the focus is more on how these two survive in different cultures. Jamaleldin was Russified, though he did not convert, during his time at the tsar’s court. By the time he was ransomed back (for Anna Elinichna), his heritage was alien to him. Before he could see his father again, his brother and Shamil’s generals required him to change from his cadet’s uniform into Dagestani clothes. Jamaleldin reluctantly agrees to change out in the open:

He tugged off his bouts, he unbuttoned, he pulled down. The cold air on his skin, the snow-capped mountains above and a Russian military uniform fell into a heap on the grass. Here he was between one dress and the other, neither Russian nor Chechen, just naked and human. It was a restful place to be with sun on his back and grass between his toes. He shivered and pulled on the familiar-unfamiliar clothes. (240*)

Anna Elinichna also has a hard time reacclimating to life with her husband back in Tbilisi. Because Anna Elinichna and Jamaleldin were (mostly) on their own, no one in their new environment quite understands the problem. Their time with other cultures has irrevocably changed them.

Unlike these two protagonists, Natasha Hussein has never really had a people to belong to. Her mother was Russian and atheist. Her father was Sudanese and Muslim. After they divorced and her mother remarried, Natasha moved to Scotland. She didn’t look quite like either of her parents. She’s nominally Muslim, but doesn’t practice. Rather than try to find an identity, Natasha dove into the past. When a gifted student is accused of radicalization, arrested, and questioned for eleven days and she learns that her father is dying, all the questions Natasha has been avoiding come back to violent life.

The Kindness of Enemies is slow to start, but it hooked me within the first few chapters. The exotic setting (nineteenth century Dagestan) certainly piqued my interest, though I ended up fascinated by the way the characters are forced to negotiate their identities and allegiances. Aboulela is particularly good at capturing just how lonely it can be to be cut off from one’s people and heritage.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who feel they don’t have a group to belong to.

* From Grove Press’s 2015 kindle edition.