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Hard by a Great Forest


Hard by a Great Forest

When Saba was still a child, civil war broke out in Georgia, just months after his home country achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Saba; his older brother, Sandro; and their father, Irakli, escaped to London, leaving behind the boys' mother, Eka (who had divorced Irakli years earlier), as she did not have a passport.

For years, Irakli tried and failed to send money back to Georgia to reunite Eka with the rest of the family, but at every turn he was foiled by scammers and plain bad luck. Sadly, Eka --- along with virtually all of their extended family back in Georgia --- died before Irakli and his sons could bring her to the UK.

Now, 20 years after first leaving and devastated by what he failed to do for Eka, Irakli makes a return pilgrimage of sorts to Georgia but then disappears after sending his sons a cryptic message that seemed to indicate he was being pursued. Alarmed, Sandro follows him to Georgia and appears to suffer the same fate. Reluctantly, Saba also makes his way from London to Tbilisi, only to have his passport seized at customs, giving him the distinct impression that he's already a wanted man.

"HARD BY A GREAT FOREST movingly evokes the complicated feelings of trying to recapture and redefine what home looks and feels like."

Without too many resources and knowing no one in Tbilisi, Saba is taken under the wing of Nodar, a hard-drinking, rough-around-the-edges taxi driver who puts Saba up in the apartment he shares with his wife, Ketino. Nodar and Ketino are nursing a loss of their own, but in the true spirit of Georgian hospitality, Saba doesn't realize that until later. Like others who remained in the city over years of turmoil, Nodar and Ketino are determined to make the best of things. As Saba's mother once said, "We've seen hardship too many times to be cowed by it. We know living is more important than surviving."

The Tbilisi that Saba returns to is both familiar and strange to him. Like any adult coming back to a place where he lived as a child, his memory is at odds with reality, and he realizes he misremembered many things. What's more, the city is still recovering from the conflicts. Particularly in the neighborhood where he grew up, colorful facades barely hide the scars of war damage. Adding to the sense of surreality is that, as Saba arrives, the city is in chaos after a flood; all their zoo animals have escaped and now roam the streets and forests. And Saba is constantly accompanied by the voices of ghosts, of people he once knew.

Those forests play a key role in the novel, whose title is taken from the opening lines of "Hansel and Gretel." As Saba follows cryptic clues left for him by his brother, many of them inspired by the stories of their youth, it's almost as if he's following the breadcrumbs in that story. Like many a younger son in fairy tales, it might be Saba's destiny to make things right. Or, since this is not actually a fairy tale, it might be more complicated than that. What constitutes a happy ending might need to be revised or thrown out altogether.

Debut novelist Leo Vardiashvili's biography resembles Saba's own. He left Georgia as a refugee when he was a child and didn't return to his homeland for many years. HARD BY A GREAT FOREST movingly evokes the complicated feelings of trying to recapture and redefine what home looks and feels like. Vardiashvili doesn't shy away from depicting the violence and trauma that still roil under the surface of Tbilisi's shiny new cityscape --- or that boil over in the disputed territory of Ossetia. But he also describes the unfailing generosity and hospitality of its people.

One old woman feeds Saba a delicious meal of vegetables, cheese and bread despite having an icebox so empty, as she says, "I looked in here the other day and found the cockroach had hung himself." And he describes the genuine beauty of the countryside: "This is the fantasy land I thought Irakli had gone to. Dusty farms and homesteads, vineyards perched on steep hills, forests, and rivers glide by my window like a slideshow of scruffy beauty. London seems a fading, crowded fever dream."

Reconciling this place --- whose forests can feel like the stuff of fairy tales --- with its reality and his own lingering trauma and regrets is a task that's still in progress for Saba at the end of the novel. Like Hansel's journey into the forest, it's a challenging trek but one that readers will be fortunate to accompany him on.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 9, 2024

Hard by a Great Forest
by Leo Vardiashvili

  • Publication Date: January 30, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593545036
  • ISBN-13: 9780593545034