The Free World by David Bezmozgis

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The Free World by David Bezmozgis

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: Stuck between two countries in another not of their choosing this story mixes humour and sadness to tell the tale of a family emigrating from the 1970's Soviet Union.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Viking
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0670920051

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It's the late 1970's and a family of Latvian Jews, the Krasnanskys, are emigrating from the Soviet Union. They're made to stay in Rome whilst they apply to live in the States and they find themselves trapped in a strange migratory limbo, belonging nowhere and tied to no-one but each other.

Much of the story's focus is on Alec, one of the two brothers who have instigated the move to a new country. He is married to Polina and is travelling with his brother Karl's family and their parents, Emma and Samuil. Alec is the young, likeable but immature son who, on arriving in Rome, lands himself a job translating the emigration bureaucracy for the newly arrived immigrants. Although he has a lovely wife he also has a wandering eye and, unable to stay faithful, he soon gets himself embroiled in trouble.

Meanwhile Samuil, Alec's father, is creating problems for their emigration status. He has health issues which count against them in their bid to emigrate but also he remains a devout communist, refusing to make any efforts in their interviews since, really, he never wanted to leave the Soviet Union in the first place. Samuil spends his time reliving his past whilst his other son, Karl, is busy wheeling and dealing to keep the family afloat. Karl's wife is devoutly throwing herself into the Jewish community, hoping the Krasnanskys will change their minds and emigrate to Israel, rather than North America. The book feels very cinematic at times - there's a real sense of place as you read and the characters are vibrant and engaging, if not always likeable. There are interesting passages about the lives they've left behind in the Soviet Union, particularly Samuil's reflections on his past life, and there's a very vivid sense of their lives in Rome where they find themselves 'stuck' for months on end.

I did occasionally feel that the story dragged, it went on just a little too long for me. There's also a strange rush of excitement towards the end as Alex finds himself embroiled in his brother's dodgy dealings, and suddenly you wonder if you've slipped into a gangster novel by mistake. On the whole though the characters carry the story well. I didn't particularly like the male characters - although Alec initially seemed like a nice guy my opinion of him changed significantly through the book. Samuil was interesting but again, I didn't feel drawn to him. I would have liked more about Polina, and also about her sister who sounded terribly sweet and left me wanting to know more about her and her life back in the Soviet Union and stuck with their parents after Polina leaves.

It's a well written story, covering an interesting moment in history, but it lacked a little something for my own personal taste. I wasn't always sure what the author was aiming for me to be feeling as, stylistically, the book felt a little mixed up - some moments were funny, others very stark and shocking, others quite mundane. The nature of their situation, stuck in Rome, is oppressive and that also wore me down as I read. Perhaps that was the point, to leave me feeling confused and oppressed. I think at the beginning I'd hoped for it to be a more humorous tale, with a few splashes of tragedy too. It's certainly an interesting read, and if you have an inkling of interest then you should definitely try it.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: You might also be interested in The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown and Purge by Sofi Oksanen.

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