Book Review: The Pear Field

The Pear Field, by Nana Ekvtimishvili (translated by Elizabeth Heighway), is a powerful but unremittingly bleak depiction of life in a residential school for ‘Intellectually Disabled Children’. Located on the outskirts of Tbilisi,  in a newly independent Georgia, many of the children at the school were abandoned by their parents at a young age. Some have suffered appalling abuse at the hands of their peers, and also a monstrous teacher who preys on the younger girls with impunity. The descriptions of certain acts are deeply disturbing to read. 

Opening with a death, the first chapter names a great many of the characters living in and around the school who will feature in the ongoing tale. I found it challenging to keep track of who was who, flicking back and forth to try to understand relationships.

There are obvious friendships but also a lack of trust among the young people whose lives are scarred by cold and hunger as well as parental rejection. A central figure is eighteen year old Lela – a long time resident, old enough now to leave the school but with nowhere else to go. She has her favourites in the youngsters, chief among these is Irakli whose mother keeps promising she will visit him but never appearing.

Over the course of a stifling summer, the lives the children lead are revealed in bleak detail. The only glimmer of hope appears to be the prospect of one child being adopted by an American couple – a new life in a land of hope. Those who leave the school mostly end up selling themselves – into crime, prostitution or eventual destitution.

Neighbours in the Soviet tower blocks that surround the school are sometimes kindly but also inhumane. A mother brings her errant child to the gates, threatening in front of the inmates to leave him there if he will not behave. Men treat the girls as prey, to be raped as this can be done without consequence. Perhaps to salve their consciences they offer rewards of sweets or, when the girls are older, money. Those running the school make a little extra by selling on goods provided to ease the hardships faced by the children. 

 The writing is visceral and uncompromising with a plot that simmers and sparks with tension. It is clear that anything can happen to the characters, whose wellbeing is undercut by their need to survive deprivation of sustenance and care. Even a lighter scene – a nighttime raid on a neighbours fruit tree – has a distressing conclusion.  

A story that will force the reader to confront the scale of difficulties faced by those whose lives have no backup – be it of education or family. The state provides but advantage is taken of children, leaving them scarred and emotionally damaged. A well written but searing read.  

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: Snow, Dog, Foot

Snow, Dog, Foot, by Claudio Morandini (translated by J. Ockenden), is the first book in Peirene Press’s Closed Universe Series. Its protagonist is an old man, Adelmo Farandola, who lives alone in a stone cottage on remote Alpine slopes. The high valley becomes snowed in throughout winter so he stocks up with provisions and firewood ready for the isolation he has chosen. He is aware that his memory is becoming ever more unreliable but rejects overtures of help. He is mistrustful of those in authority with their rules that threaten his way of living.

The story opens with Adelmo making a rare trip to the nearest village to buy long lasting foodstuffs before access is blocked by the imminent snowfall. On his way home Adelmo is followed by an elderly dog, despite the poor creature being verbally and physically abused and then shut out of the cottage. Over time the pair bond as the long winter sets in. A mountain ranger tries to persuade Adelmo to seek shelter amongst other people but the old man has few good experiences of social interaction.

Adelmo has learned how to survive difficult conditions, caring little for how he is perceived so long as he is left alone. He chooses solitude over how others treat him, keeping himself aesthetically repellent and convincing himself this is healthier than the comfort and cleanliness modern society expects.

Adelmo recalls the violence of his boyhood and adolescence. He survived the war years but at a cost. He resents the tourists who sometimes stray onto his land and bother him with requests or attempts at conversation. He surprises himself when he finds he enjoys the talks he has with the dog. With two mouths to feed, however, provisions do not last as long as before.

When the first thaws allow Adelmo to leave his cottage seeking food alongside the other hungry mountain creatures, he discovers a human foot sticking out of the snow. His memory offers up fragments that lead him to act to protect himself from the expected reactions of other people.

The writing is taut and evocative, serving up a memorable character in a setting that is awe inspiring but also merciless. The ranger and the dog provide nuance and colour but it is Adelmo’s history that adds depth and poignancy.

I enjoyed the voice created with its intriguing moodiness, and the changing relationship between man and dog. While unsentimental and at times brutal, this is a tale that packs an emotional punch.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.