Harsh, lovely prose chronicles the author’s two years in post-Soviet Georgia.
Steavenson adheres to a rough chronology in this collection of animated snapshots of a region devastated by war, political sleaze, poverty, greed, and graft. She begins in a remote village with the story of a man assembling a Stalin theme park and ends by expressing the almost featherless hope that “the best we can do is respect our family, love our friends, open a bottle of wine, drink it, and then open another one.” In between are moments of wonder, weirdness, wisdom, and terror. Coming off a stint writing for Time magazine, the author was between lives in the Georgian town of Tbilisi. She drank a lot, waited for the power to go on (it was off most of the time), frequented the public baths, and took trips with friends to places that offered the prospect of wine or wonder—usually both. She slept in the Gorbachevs’ bed in their former dacha; she ate fried brains and explored the story of a ruinous lovers’ duel; she hiked high in the mountains to witness a horse race; she painted Eduard Shevardnadze in dark, unflattering colors (she shook his hand and found it limp); she chatted and drank with work crews exploding some 15,000 land mines lying along the Gumista. She also nursed a broken heart after falling in love with “Thomas,” who dumped her and then returned nine months later to propose marriage. (She declined.) She shows us a landscape so cluttered with debris and decay (not unexpectedly, she alludes to “Ozymandias”) that by the end we think almost lovely a description of a cow urinating in the marketplace mud. What appears to appeal to Steavenson—and to keep her in Georgia (she was born in the US and grew up in London)—is the candor, kindness, and daffy equanimity of the people. A useful “Ethnic Glossary” helps with the history.
In the ruins, stories that stun.