2014, 944 Trans. by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin 2019
OK , Readings Bookstore, you got me. You included a chapter-length teaser of this book with your Readings Monthly newsletter, I read it and straight away put a hold on The Eighth Life at the library. (Sorry, Readings, that probably wasn’t the outcome you wanted!) But then the rather abrupt first shutdown came, with the book waiting on the hold shelf in the inaccessible library and so I turned to Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light instead. I had no sooner picked up this book from the library than the second shutdown was announced, and so I found myself with six – and then nine – weeks to read it. Not that it took that long. Within about 30 pages I was hooked, and I could barely put it down.
It is a huge family saga of 933 pages, spanning from the start of the 20th century through to the 21st century in Georgia, on the fringe of the Russian and Soviet empires. The narrator, Niza is writing the family history for her 12-year-old niece, Brilka whose life will be the eighth in this family story. Book 1 starts with Stasia, who marries a White Guard turned Red Lieutenant after the Russian Revolution; Book 2 introduces us to Christine, her sister, who becomes involved with the ‘Little Big Man’ Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief. In Book 3 her son Kostya follows his father into the Navy, leaving behind a shattered love affair to become the family patriarch and tyrant. Stasia’s daughter Kitty, for whom Book 4 is named, flees Georgia and becomes a dissident songwriter in the West. Book 5 deals with Kostya’s wayward daughter, Elene, who has two daughters Daria (Book 6) who is Brilka’s mother, and Niza (Book 7) the narrator. Brilka’s story, in Book 8, is yet to be told.
This makes the book sound more linear than it actually is. The women of the family – sisters, aunts- live inordinately long lives, and they are present in the lives of their great-granddaughters and great-grandnieces. The family memory is long enough that events recur, and resonances in one generation sound in succeeding generations. It was good to read a book where the matriarchal line carried the real strength, with mothers, aunts and female friends carrying out the nurturing roles and driving the family forward. The atrocities -and there are atrocities- lie at the heart of what it is to be a woman.
At the same time, there was a hint of magical realism with a family chocolate recipe, that is never divulged to the reader but carried from one generation of women to the next. It tastes exquisite but often seems to carry a curse. Does the book need this magic chocolate? Probably not, but it does underline the fairytale narrative of the book.
There is no family tree at the start of the book, as one might expect, but the separate books are long enough that characters are clearly embedded in your consciousness, and I rarely found myself thinking “Hold on, who’s that again?” I certainly learned more about Georgia than I expected I would. The book is somewhat discursive, following other characters beyond the eight lives of the title but it’s best to just go with it and enjoy, instead of becoming impatient to return to the main story.
I just loved this book. It was perfect reading for a lock-down, when you have sufficient time to immerse yourself in a big fat book.
My rating: 10/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library