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The Eighth Life (For Brilka)
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A- : inescapably entertaining
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
The Eighth Life (For Brilka) is a large-scale -- nearly 1000-page, in the English-language edition -- multi-generational family epic.
It is narrated by Niza, born in 1974, writing in 2006, and begins with a Prologue in which she addresses the representative of the next generation -- and the future --, her twelve-year-old niece Brilka who had been in Amsterdam, performing with the dance troupe she was part of, and had suddenly taken off on her own, running off to Vienna, with Niza now having been charged with collecting the wayward child.
The story then unfolds more or less chronologically, in (almost) eight parts -- not quite generation by generation but each part titled after and focusing on a different member of this family.
The eighth part -- the eighth book -- is devoted to Brilka; appropriately, it is blank: her story is (mostly) unwritten, her future still (almost) entirely open.
But that's just the way it is, Brilka -- we do things with a specific aim in mind and sometimes we achieve something completely different, just as you could never have dreamed, when you boarded the train to Vienna, that you would have to travel backwards, backwards to me, into the story you were so eager to leave behind.The Eighth Life (For Brilka) is such a retrospective tale, and filled with examples of ambitions thwarted and outcomes different from those the characters had wanted to work towards. Overwhelming forces, especially of a corrupt and crushing state, batter the characters about, easily changing the course of their lives -- but even the one high-level apparatchik in the family, Kostya, finds greater forces limiting how much he can shape events -- and, especially, people -- to his will.
Kostya's wife -- long separated from her husband in a marriage that doesn't turn out particularly happily -- eventually observes:
You never talk about the past, Kostya. Why not ? Nor do you mother and your aunt. I know so little about you all. I found a box of old photos in the attic recently. You don't even have a proper family album. It's strange.The Eighth Life (For Brilka) is then an attempt at creating such a family album, revealing the family's past and secrets -- and the many things that long go unspoken. (This is the kind of story where many characters long keep things to themselves; a nice touch by Haratischvili here is that openness -- spilling the beans, revealing the truth -- often not only goes unrewarded but in fact makes situations worse.) The half-sisters Christine and Stasia (Kostya's mother) anchor the story; they are the daughters of a Georgian chocolatier who enjoys great success with his fine wares at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the girls are born. Haratischvili here introduces one of the novel's few more fantastical elements, a secret recipe that the chocolate-maker had discovered, a small dose of which he adds to all the chocolate products he makes but which comes to full fruition in a cup of hot chocolate -- but, as he warns: "it is dangerous". It is the most valuable family secret, and he handles it with great care; eventually, he hands it down to Stasia as a wedding present -- while warning her of its intoxicating effects:
This chocolate can only be enjoyed in small amounts. A very small quantity of the ingredients can make any chocolate product a true delight, but in its pure form, in this form, Stasia, it can bring about calamity.The recipe is not exactly the family's curse, but it is a powerful agent that the characters sometimes fall back on in desperation; fortunately, Haratischvili does not rely on this too much, and in this very busy story it is, for the most part, little more than yet another piece of quirky family color.
With Stasia born in 1900, The Eighth Life (For Brilka) is also very much a novel of the century (and a little bit more), and specifically of the Georgian experience for those hundred-plus years. Historical cornerstones figure prominently: the Russian Revolution, the brief period of Georgian independence, the Second World War, the changing situation in the Soviet Union -- in particular its accelerating decay -- and then the complicated post-Soviet transition and Georgia's messy separation from Russia. It becomes a lot to pack in, and occasionally is awkward, history forced into the narrative -- it's a bit much to have two of the characters in Prague on 20 August 1968, for example; you can get away with something like that with a build-up such as Uwe Johnson's in his (similarly mammoth) Anniversaries, but here it feels just a bit to incidentally-convenient. (So then also what Haratischvili does with it -- though that goes a bit of a way to excusing it as well -- as she mines at least one of the character's brief visit for all it is worth.)
Georgia's most famous son, the Generalissimus himself -- Stalin, of course, but never referred to by name -- casts a long shadow over much of the book, as of course he did over all Soviet life during his reign, and the Georgian connection (and lingering national pride in that) obviously feature, though it is the other strongman with local connections, Little Big Man, Lavrentiy Beria, whose rise to power included stations that saw him spend much time in Georgia, who figures more prominently in the family's story (and tragedy), as well as that of Kostya's closest friend (and longtime helper of Kostya's sister, Kitty) -- the most prominent other case of Haratischvili perhaps over-stretching her narrative to tie in with history and historical personages.
The historical markers -- events and people -- do help anchor the arguably somewhat unwieldy story, giving readers a hold along the way, but The Eighth Life (For Brilka) really is better when it is family-focused, almost outside of time (though inevitably outside circumstances, particularly political ones, shape so much of the family members' lives). The rush of more recent change, in particular -- the collapse of the Soviet Union and its aftermath -- gets a bit messy: Haratischvili's book is huge, but she struggles to contain -- or include -- all of this, and things begin to feel a bit hurried and stuffed-in here; the novel is only really saved when she gets back on track in the penultimate (but actually final) part, the seventh book, in which Niza tells her story -- and, specifically, her struggles to bring Brilka (back) into the fold.
The novel largely unfolds chronologically, with background fill-in where necessary and Niza occasionally coming to the fore, reminding readers (specifically Brilka, to whom she is addressing her narrative) that she is writing from her 2006 perspective. The novel is not, however, layered generation by generation; instead, the books focus on three pairs of siblings (two of the pairs half-siblings), with Elene -- Niza's mother -- and Brilka (whose book is nothing more than a blank page) the odd women out. It begins with sisters Stasia and Christine, then moves to Stasia's children, Kostya and Kitty, and, after Elene, to her two children Daria and Niza. If these characters dominate their respective books, there's nevertheless great and continuous overlap among them and their stories: Stasia and Christine, in particular, features prominently for much of the story, as does Kostya, who is very much the dominant pater familias for the later generations -- even as he is long absent from the family home.
While Georgia is the dominant locale, with most of the characters spending significant parts of their lives here, the stories do lead elsewhere, too: military man Kostya is long stationed elsewhere, and settles down for an extended period in Moscow, for example, while Kitty and then Niza both move abroad.
Beyond these eight central figures, numerous others also play significant roles and feature for much of the story -- lovers, husbands and wives, friends. There are strikingly few successful longterm romantic relationships in this novel -- it says something that the perhaps happiest marriage sees the husband eventually disfigure his wife's face with acid --, though there are many longterm passions. Few of the children grow up simply with their parents -- though at least the larger family tends to try their best (often with limited success) in taking up slack for absent parents as needed. (The children are also rarely the result of happy romantic affairs; sexual encounters throughout are, often as not, problematic in one way or another; paternity, in particular, is often either not taken very seriously or intentionally sidelined.) The willingness to take on child-raising responsibilities isn't limited to the children of family members either, as an extended family moves in and out of the households; close connection, however, tend to be limited, abruptly coming to ends. Given most of these times, it's not entirely surprising that few of the characters have normal upbringings; nevertheless it is striking how often they are ripped out of and from positive environments and personal connections.
Male figures tend to be secondary; this is very much a story of the women (and the women-as-girls -- Haratischvili focuses a great deal on their formative years), with only Kostya a significant force -- his influence, however, often too strong (he's a put-my-foot-down kind of guy) and his decisions often poor. The female figures tend to be much more reliable and promising -- though occasionally also given to flightiness (Brilka is far from the first to leap into something that is far beyond her years). Haratischvili does also resort to making quite a few of the characters exceptional in one way or another, beginning with the stunningly beautiful Christine; the novel's main characters include a movie star, a musical superstar, and the exceptionally promising dancer Brilka ..... (Many other characters are also exceptional in one way or another, but thwarted in their genius not being allowed to properly unfold -- not least Niza, who at least is strong enough to eventually make her own way.)
Haratischvili can get heavy-handed, down to the details: one catch-all fate mentioned very much in passing is that of "Daria's progenitor", who escaped, with big dreams, to America; his end is par for the course for the male figures in the novel, he winding up in Davenport, Iowa (not even having made it to, or in, New York or Los Angeles, Elene sighs with disappointment):
At the time of his death, he was a gas-station attendant on his third marriage. An untreated obstruction of the bowel killed him; he hadn't been able to afford health insurance, and so he hadn't gone to the doctor, despite the pain.Bonus points for the gratuitous (but always welcome) dig at the American health care system, but this bashing of such a minor character seems like a bit of overkill .....
There's the occasional fall-back into melodrama, too: two of the sisters' antics around getting one of them into a film, in particular, feels -- in this presentation -- like an episode out of a different (YA, girls') novel, but for the most part Haratischvili doses out the theatrics well- and under control enough. And this is a paced novel, relentless in story, the chapters -- each with an apposite epigraph -- further divided into short sections making for a quick -- but not hasty -- succession of action. In many respects, The Eighth Life (For Brilka) is in fact a potboiler -- a well-crafted one, with little let-up.
The novel begins to lose a bit of its hold in near-contemporary times -- the number of characters and threads, as well as the tumultuous post-Soviet Georgian history, becoming a bit much for Haratischvili to handle; it even threatens to become an historical epic trickling to a bit of a tepid end. Instead, Haratischvili not only salvages the story but finishes off the work-as-a-whole in surprisingly better fashion, making more of the story in making The Eighth Life (For Brilka) more than just a historical family epic. She does so by turning away from Georgia and following Niza abroad, and then in turning the focus very specifically to the saving of the young child, the hitherto basically unseen -- though of course, from the title onward, significant figure of -- Brilka. The book cleverly doesn't simply go full-circle -- the Prologue, set in 2006, had introduced the premise, of Niza setting out to fetch runaway Brilka -- but rather goes a bit more than that: the point at which it opens comes around again half-way through the seventh book of the novel -- and then continues beyond that. It's in this that novel (and its conception) are all pulled together. Yes, annoyingly, Brilka too is preternatural, an anything but average girl, but in her Niza -- and Haratischvili -- also find the justification, of form and content, for the book, which neatly ties the whole together and makes for the very satisfying conclusion to The Eighth Life (For Brilka).
At times the melodramatic bits in The Eighth Life (For Brilka) can get annoying, but Haratischvili always presses on so fast and offers so much more that it's an almost impossible to resist page-turner. (Note however, that while the main personalities are strong and memorable, the jumble of characters and generations is Russian-novel-worthy and a family (plus ...) tree-diagram would have been helpful to keep track of the different generations and connections (the Spanish translation has one ...).)
It's not quite the 'Georgia'-novel one might expect -- Haratischvili gives the history-overview as she races along, and she does do some of the settings well, but doesn't quite capture life beyond the family, with a very few exceptions; this is very much an inward -looking, character-driven and -focused story. But there's so much -- of everything (people, places, incidents) -- that readers get their fill of Georgia and darkest Soviet history, too.
The Eighth Life (For Brilka) is, oddly, not quite the novel it seems to want to be -- that Soviet(-with-Georgian-focus), century-spanning panorama-novel -- but is all the more successful in its limited sphere (with the points where Haratischvili explicitly makes connections to real-life history, such as in the figure of Beria, the ones that feel the most awkward). Its success -- and the novel is unquestionably a success -- lies beyond any contain-a-whole-century-and-nation aspirations. It is littered with flaws -- rarely major ones, but certainly quite a few small annoying ones, from some of the uses of the magic chocolate recipe (oy veh ...) to individual sentences (portentous does not work well in the context of the story, but occasionally Haratischvili can't help herself) -- but it's the kind of read that has you simply brush by these.
The Eighth Life (For Brilka) simply sweeps the reader up and along; it is a very, very good read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 22 March 2020
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German-writing Nino Haratischwili was born in Georgia in 1983.
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