Hard by a Great Forest by Leo Vardiashvili
This dark novel set in post-Soviet Georgia by a native of that region now living in the UK speaks with Russian soulfulness of loss and atonement, both recurring themes in the history of this contentious and deeply spiritual people. It is finely written and richly adorned with detail which makes the whole a compelling and engrossing read.
This gritty novel of loss, longing and atonement evokes the Russian soul in the voice of the Georgian people who have suffered from their imposed association with the former Soviet Union. Occupied, oppressed, tortured and persecuted, little good has come to the unlucky citizens of this Eastern European region from this unwanted alliance that has resulted in a chaotic political and cultural scrum that seems unlikely to resolve itself anytime soon. Drowning in the midst of all this unrest, a family struggles to escape the clutches of misfortune but is forced to leave behind the mother (Eka) who remains to enable her sons (Sandro and Saba) and husband to flee to the relative safety of the U.K. The father (Irakli) labors to gather enough money to bring her to the West as well, but both bad luck and bad judgement cause his plans to fail. After many years he returns to Tbilisi, his torn former home, but vanishes and is not heard of for months when the older of the sons, Sandro, journeys to the troubled city to find him. He also vanishes and the younger son, Saba, is left to follow a trail of “breadcrumbs” in form of pages of a manuscript the father had written and cryptic messages scrawled in graffiti left by Sandro.
With numerous references to both fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel being the principal source) and Eastern European myths such as Baba Yaga, the ubiquitous witch living in a house on chicken legs, the story utilizes both historical culture and modern technology to create a dark, dangerous and mysterious journey of redemption. Saba has a secret childhood guilt that propels him as well as a more contemporary responsibility for his perceived abandonment of his mother. He hears the voices of his relatives and friends as well as both mother and father who guide and goad him along the way. He encounters a generous Georgian who becomes both helper and a millstone about his neck. His friend both complicates and simplifies the search. It is a complex tale that grips the reader’s consciousness tightly and does not let go.
The author, who is of Georgian descent but now lives in the U.K. is a master of drawing in his readership. One becomes a member of the small band of struggling characters desperately striving to find justice or at least resolution. The last quarter of the books is difficult to put down, the pace and drive of the narrative having become such that the reader has invested emotionally in the entire enterprise. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the human condition, especially in stressed situations with likely grim outcomes. It is a fine work.