A well-wrought memoir about growing up in Bulgaria during the dreary Communist years.
Nestled between Romania, Turkey and Macedonia on the Black Sea, Bulgaria is a country that Westerners know little about, likely due to its long closure from the Western world and the Slavic language barrier. Kassabova (The Best of Delhi, 2008, etc.), who spent expat years in New Zealand and Scotland, opens this history-rich country to readers. The author was raised in Sofia with her parents, both intellectuals, and younger sister in a “two-room flat in an eight-floor concrete building surrounded by thousands of identical concrete buildings, purposeful and sturdy like nuclear plants in freshly bulldozed fields of mud.” Their building was called “Youth 3” (after Youth 1 and 2), and as a child Kassabova suspected that something was wrong with their meager, joyless world: “ ‘Mum, why is everything so ugly?’ To which my mother couldn’t find an honest answer, except to hide her tears.” At one point, the author suffered from a mysterious auto-immune disease probably resulting from the Chernobyl fallout. Some of her father’s colleagues from Holland, arriving in an extravagant van wearing bright, pastel clothing and eating unimaginable treats, reinforced the family’s shame and the sense that they were not equal. Education offered only “an inhabitable space in the uninhabitable Youths” and “the possibility to emigrate ‘internally.’ ” After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when the author was 16, she and her parents were finally allowed to emigrate. Kassabova’s work encompasses both her early years and her return trips to Sofia and other areas of Bulgaria, during which she visited relatives, trekked the Balkan mountains and explored Balkan history and ancient myths (Orpheus was born in the Rhodope mountains). As both an insider and outsider, the author is able to assess her complex country with a simultaneously fond and critical gaze.
Delves deeply into memory, history and imagination.