Yakimov (Ashes of Wars, 2011, etc.) remembers her childhood and adolescence in Cold War Bulgaria.
Yakimov begins her memoir with accounts of the bomber raids on Sofia during the dark days of the second world war, when her family and neighbors would crouch in the basement awaiting their unknown fates. From the death of Czar Boris III and the arrival of the Stalinists to her eventual escape through West Germany and on to Canada in the 1960s, Yakimov documents her youth in the impoverished People’s Republic of Bulgaria. She began keeping a diary in 1952; her father noted her dedication to it: “Is your diary a reflection of your life, or are you living for the sake of the diary?” The document (some of it reprinted here) serves as the departure point for the memoir: a memory-jogger and primary source that recorded her preoccupations and conjectures regarding her family, education, and future. The Yakimov of the present, with the benefit of perspective and the pull of nostalgia, relates the quirks of her friends and relations, anecdotes and experiences proving that, regardless of circumstance, people behave like people—humorously, aspirationally, sometimes selflessly. The prose is a pleasure to read: Yakimov has a great sense of image and narrative that fixes the reader in her gritty world. Additionally, she’s a tremendous writer of the human spirit. Her empathy for individuals is great even as her criticism of institutions is barbed. A sense of loss (for both the Bulgaria of her parents’ youth and the Bulgaria of her own) haunts the prose like smoke that won’t disappear. While the account of conditions under the communists is fascinating, the heart of the text lies in the minutiae of Yakimov’s household: her stoic father, her strong-willed mother, her family’s lore and hardship. The memoir accomplishes the admirable task of humanizing people who lived under an increasingly dehumanizing system. Readers will be thankful so much has been remembered and recorded yet conscious of how much more has been lost.
An affecting memoir of circumstance, absence,