Lala by Jacek Dehnel and Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translator)

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Lala by Jacek Dehnel and Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translator)

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Wilson
Reviewed by Ruth Wilson
Summary: This is a wonderful book about life, family and heritage. Dehnel tells the story of Lala, his Grandmother and recounts the stories she tells him about her life and her family, of loss and love and happiness. Lala is a strong woman who lived a long life through extraordinary times and this book is the story of her life, her spirit and her strength.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: June 2018
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
ISBN: 978-1786073570

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This is the mysterious nature of storytelling: the same start can also mean different endings, and different starts can lead to the same finale. It's all subordinate to the greater narrative, which starts somewhere in Kiev. This beautiful book is exactly that, the mysterious art of storytelling. The wayward meanderings of memory, of tangents and digressions, of side notes and elaborations, but above all that of affection; for both the story and the storyteller. What makes us who we are if not our culture and heritage and in this book our narrator re-lives and re-tells the story of his heritage told to him by his grandmother.

To describe the plot of this book is difficult; it's like trying to hold water, and that is the wonder of this book. The story is really a great string of memories; of Jacek Dehnel's own memories of his grandmother and his memories of the stories she told of a great cast of characters, family members, neighbours, even Madzia-who-brings-the-milk. These stories of memories pick up and drop off, fly off at tangents, both our narrators and his grandmothers, so as a reader it is hard to hold a specific sense of who, where and when. Instead, the reader is left with a glorious sense of impressions, a sense of who people are rather than what people did. Added to that, the memories are told by Dehnel with a great sense of humour and affection for both the stories he is telling and for his elderly grandmother Lala. This book won the Paszport Polityki Award and it is not hard to see why.

I particularly loved the photos scattered through the book, they range from 1900 to 1995 but are all in black and white, which adds a uniformity and dignity to them, especially as Lala ages. It adds a sense of depth to the memories shared when the protagonist of the current story is regarding you as you read. This book is less like reading a novel but rather looking through a friend's photo album as they reminisce about their life and events. It rather adds to the tone of the book that the photos are increasingly scarce around the times of the greatest upheavals, the Revolution and the two World Wars; there is the added sense of survival being more important and of things forever lost.

The book as a whole is wonderful; all events are told with the sense of humour that the human character uses to get through difficult times. Lala's father escaped the Russian Revolution, Lala and her family lived through both World Wars, and Dehnel recounts the nightmares they suffer because of it, but we see a sense of the strength of Lala's spirit in the tales she tells. For me, though, the real beauty of this book comes towards the end as Lala gets older and older and starts to fade. Her memories fade, events become muddled and she suffers from senile obsession but her strength of character continues and Dehnel, without sugar coating events, continues to pay tribute to her strength of character as they try to deal with her loss of health and the family rally round to make the most of her before she dies. Dehnel's honest representation of the end of an era is so moving, it is not sentimental or morbid but rather it is the plain re-telling of the final months and days of a woman who has been at the centre of his world.

This is an unusual book, more biography than novel, but it never stops for a second. It is funny, and charming, and sad all at once. It is more than a story of his grandmother but one of history and heritage and love, every moment of the book is about the love Lala felt for her family and Dehnel's love for Lala. It is a glorious snapshot of a time long gone and a life well lived and every moment of it is wonderful.

For something similar you could try Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry and Alison Anderson (translator)

Buy Lala by Jacek Dehnel and Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lala by Jacek Dehnel and Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translator) at

Buy Lala by Jacek Dehnel and Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lala by Jacek Dehnel and Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translator) at


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