After the intense, psychological intrigue and drama of Lois Banner’s feminist biography of Marilyn Monroe, and the light-hearted romance of Delicacy, I was a little stuck about what to read next. I had a small pile of books sent very kindly from publishers, and spent way too long staring at them all, turning them over and trying desperately to decide which one to read next. I usually choose my next book by feeling, simply choosing the one that I feel the most drawn to for whatever reason. I had a great selection in front of me; and the family drama and geopolitical issues of The Free World by David Bezmozgis won in the end.
Bezmozgis was born in Riga, Latvia, and moved to Canada with his family when he was six years old. This was in 1980. They moved to escape Soviet rule. His novel, The Free World, centres on the Krasnansky family, leaving Riga in 1978, bound for Chicago in the US. The novel opens on a station platform in Vienna, with the family struggling to load their numerous, large, heavy suitcases onto a train. The prose is simple and quite sparse – in words rather than content. The sight of an old couple sitting on their luggage, looking dejected, is a reminder to Alec Krasnansky that his family is one of many leaving their entire lives behind in Eastern Europe to escape the Soviet Union and travel to Western Europe and America. Everything they have is in their luggage.
Bezmozgis’ website describes the writing in The Free World as ‘precise’ and ‘musical’, which seems appropriate. It is easy to read to flows nicely, delighting in each word and wasting none. For me, these are the characteristics of genuinely great writing. By the end of the short first chapter, I was hooked. The writing is the most likeable thing about this book. None of the characters are particularly appealing, but there is a universality to all their stories (no doubt intended) that means any reader can relate to at least one of them. Personally I found Polina and Alec the most engaging. Married out of circumstance but with a strangely deep bond, they are young adults trying to make sense of what life has given them. Neither of them seem sure about any of the decisions they make within the course of the novel.
The fact that the family are stuck in Rome – after their sponsor in America fails to help them gets visas – creates the wider themes or the novel. Most characters are stuck in some way, usually between the past and the present, or this choice or that choice. Their collective decision to leave Riga was prompted by a variety of things, and so they all have different opinions about and attitudes towards their temporary new home.
Patriarch Samuil, in particular, resents the emigration to the West. He seems to be the only one in the family who truly believed in Communism and truly renounced religion – all the others still hold on to Judaism in some way, particularly his wife Emma. We spend a fair amount of time with Samuil, pondering life’s unfairness and the tragedies of the past. He decides to write his memoirs and will not let anyone else read them – to him, the past is sacred. The others just want the future to be better.
Though the set-up for The Free World is plot-driven, most of the novel isn’t. Stuck in Rome, the family are left to contemplate their situation and try to make the best of things. It is a meditation on emigration, Communism, religion, community and family, as well as the fact of moving forward whether you like it or not. Bezmozgis creates a universal family that we are able to both sympathise with and chastise for their mistakes. There is dark, sarcastic humour throughout as the struggle to belong continues, and we are constantly reminded that everyone has their flaws and weaknesses, no matter how together they seem to have it.
A big, warm, emotional, dramatic and tragic story, The Free World is definitely one I would recommend.
The Free World was published by Penguin in paperback on 2nd August 2012. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.