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.