A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (tr. Christina E Kramer)

A Spare Life with cover of girl peering through window with hand on shoulder

a nutshell: narrated by a conjoined twin raised in Skopje, this intricately immersive novel explores independence and love through communist Yugoslavia and beyond

a line: “Just like Bogdan, who solved crossword puzzles in his head because he had no pencil, I wrote internally because I had no space”

an image: Dimkovksa so viscerally depicts the flat in which the twins grew up that I found myself struggling to emerge into the real world after reading scenes within it

a thought: in her studies of migration in the context of the literary community, Zlata portrays two parallel worlds in which national & transnational writers joked politely but between the pair is a fear of the other’s otherness

a fact: this novel won the 2013 EU Prize for Literature

want to read A Spare Life? visit here

The Green Eyed Lama by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba and Jeffrey L Falt

a nutshell: beginning in 1938 and based on a true story, this novel follows a horrifying purge inflicted by Mongolia’s communist government under Soviet orders – intertwined with a complicated love story between a herdswoman and a lama

a line: “Believe me, ideas are far more powerful than guns and trucks”

an image: I was particularly moved by Davaa’s dream-state sequence as he goes to face his death – the green valley, tall meadow flowers, rainbows, his grandson, his daughter, and finally his beloved wife outside a white ger making milk-vodka

a thought: a lingering observation for me was an elderly herdswoman’s remark about the arbitrariness of borders while they were being forced to relocate after the military’s successful attack against the Japanese – the invisible lines demarcating one country from the next had been of no importance to her & her granddaughter until now

a fact: this was the first Mongolian novel to be published in the West, and the author writes that she had dreamt for years of writing the stories of her ancestors – the book ends with many pages listing those who were killed and the characters are in fact referred to by their real names

want to read The Green Eyed Lama? visit here

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee (tr. David John)

a photo of Hyeonseo Lee after her escape

a nutshell: this gripping memoir by a North Korean defector/activist tells the story of how she escaped and later guided her family out on a 2,000-mile trip through China & Laos

a line: “I grew up singing a song called ‘Nothing to Envy’. I felt very proud. I thought my life in North Korea was normal, even though when I was seven years old, I saw my first public execution”

an image: Hyeonseo Lee portrays a world in which the law was upside-down; by forcing North Koreans to be good citizens, she says the state made accusers & informers of everyone – and while drug-dealing is seen as a serious crime in most countries, in this world it’s a risk, like unauthorised parking

a thought: this is a mesmerising memoir with some devastating scenes; the author is brilliant at capturing the sad, the shocking, and … the humourous – describing how she got sick of noodles and needed the English word for bab (rice), she writes of the back-and-forth as she keeps saying: “Got it. Lice.”

a fact: after reading, take a look at this heart-warming reunion with a kind stranger who supported the family to escape

want to read The Girl with Seven Names? visit here

The Equestrienne by Uršuľa Kovalyk (tr. Julia and Peter Sherwood)

a nutshell: 80 pages of a stunningly unique world through the eyes of a young girl in an eccentric (matriarchal) family in the years before & after former Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution

a line: “We swapped our barbed wire cage for one made of gold”

an image: when Granny used to say Mum had a clitoris for a brain, Karolína would picture a beautiful flower inside her head – a kind of gladiolus

a thought: from its 10/10 opening to its equally fabulous ending, I found this book absolutely spell-binding; my main thought is I need to reread it

a fact: after reading the novella I learned Kovalyk is a poet, fiction writer, playwright & social worker from eastern Slovakia; these various ‘hats’ totally make sense considering the text’s poetic feel / social commentary


want to read The Equestrienne? visit here

The Country Where No One Ever Dies by Ornela Vorpsi (tr. Robert Elsie & Janice Mathie-Heck)

a nutshell: alternating between the hilarious and the harrowing, a girl shares fragments of what it was to grow up in Albania’s crumbling communist regime

a line: “He wasn’t a political prisoner, though – just a common criminal – and so posed no danger to society”

an image: the girl’s recollection of discovering mortality, realising with devastation that her mother was vulnerable – just flesh & blood, strikes a tender note in an otherwise fairly loveless landscape

a thought: many disturbing scenes are conveyed here via a child’s-eye-view, but acutely unnerving for me was the youthful acceptance of adults’ sexualisation of kids

a fact: the girl’s family repeatedly refer to her as Mata Hari, who I hadn’t previously heard of – a Dutch dancer convicted of spying for Germany during WWI


want to read The Country Where No One Ever Dies? visit here

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiutė (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

a nutshell: a desolate piece of Lithuanian survival literature in which Dalia recounts her deportation, aged 14, to a Siberian gulag and the years of gruelling manual labour that followed in the Arctic tundra

a line“Images from the past can be more painful than a branding iron. They tear me apart. But they’ve also done me a favour. They’ve ignited a furious desire to live, to persevere…”

an image: Dalia’s appalling descriptions of gangrenous, immobile deportees disintegrating on their pallets or freezing to death with hallucinations of hot coffee in tortuous blizzards sear themselves onto the memory

a thought: reading her memories of such brutal suffering, it’s sad to note that Dalia never saw these pages come out into the open; fearful of the KGB, she buried the scraps of paper in a garden and it was only in 1991 – four years after her death – that they were found

a factmost of the fellow deportees depicted by Dalia are women and children, reflecting how 70% of the 130,000+ people among the Soviet mass deportations from Lithuania were women and children


want to read Shadows on the Tundra? visit here

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong (tr. Phan Huy Duong & Nina McPherson)

a nutshell: a young woman, Hang, lucidly recalls her childhood in the Hanoi slums where she was forever torn between two sides of a family splintered by the Vietnamese Communist Party’s land reforms

a line“Hundreds of faces rose in my memory: those of my friends, people of my generation, faces gnawed with worry, shattered faces, twisted, ravaged, sooty, frantic faces.”

an image: Hang gazes out of a train window and feels wounded by the beauty of the Russian countryside under the stars – she paints a picture of light sparking off snowflakes, frail & luminous as a childhood dream

a thought: this is an exquisite novel, overflowing with intoxicating imagery and devastating insights into what it was to grow up in such a contradictory era

a fact: aged 20, the author led a Communist Youth Brigade on the front in the war against the US – but as a vocal advocate of human rights & democratic political reform, she was expelled from the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1989 and imprisoned without trial for seven months; the authorities effectively banned all four of her novels and Duong was long forbidden from travelling abroad


want to read Paradise of the Blind? visit here