And, in tracing the path of this ghost, she hoped to find redemption, and the definitive answer to the yawning emptiness inside her.
This is the book I have been needing to steep myself in all year. It’s about the revolution of the Janish family, which really begins with a secret, irresistible, seductive hot chocolate recipe that tastes like a blessing but bleeds into their lives like a curse. Surely a cup of warmth that fills the belly with such promise can fix an entire empire and yet how could they possibly know what destructive forces a red century has in store for them all? That they will become knots in a horror story of sorts, isn’t history full of those? Who is ever truly spared the cruelty of wars, within a country or a family? The beautiful Anastasia “Stasia”, ‘who came into the world already dancing’ is oblivious to the power the secret recipe her father (a famous chocolatier) gives her. “He guarded it like a secret of war.” He makes her promise to never allow the recipe to leave the family nor use it lightly, it is meant only for rare, special occasions. Does she heed his warning? From the moment it touches her tongue “it was like a spiritual ecstasy”, her fanciful dreams of life as a ballerina in Paris dissolve, but that is the least of the miseries and sorrows to come. In marrying a friend of her father’s, lieutenant of the White Guard Simon Jashi, she is bound not for Paris but for the cold climate of Russia- a country troubled with unrest. Meant to join her husband who left ahead of her, things run amok and fate teaches her a lesson.
There is no time for innocence nor clumsy dreams. It is only a relative that keeps her alive and later, when everything sours and the October Revolution thunders on, tragedy strikes. Fleeing destruction and death she finds her husband and gets pregnant with their first child ( Brilka’s great grandfather), returns back to Georgia “to the bosom of her family”, only to see the Chocolaterie fall into the state’s hands. Joined together again, she and Simon live in the countryside as a family where her life no longer feels like her own. Her sister Christine comes of age, blossoms and makes a very successful marriage. Stasia’s family grows as she gives birth to a daughter, and refusing to visit her husband in Moscow, instead moves into her father’s halved house. Later, she and her children live with her beautiful sister Christine and her husband Ramas. Christine catches the eye of her husband’s superior, the Little Big Man, awakens his animal urges, and sets in motion a horrific chain of events that will near destroy their entire family.
Then there are the children, Kitty and Kostya and how their lives play out. They both find themselves tied up in Andro’s own future, the son of Stasia’s dangerous friend, Sopio. How did I keep up with every character without notes? That’s how enthralled I was with the family and I began to feel like I was living through it all alongside them. This is a novel rich with history but nothing is more domineering than the fate of these characters. The dust never settles, the devil always seems to be at someone’s heels. But just which devil? There is no monster nor darkness more terrifying than human beings. Betrayal, starvation, treason, infidelity, war, dictators, torture, pogroms… and “Men always want to be in charge of you. What kind of life is that? I may as well have been born a dog; even as a dog I would have more freedom.” It’s not only women who ‘Little big men’ are in charge of, but countries full of doomed people. It’s as if another character may as well have been death, because it’s a constant presence.
If you’re unfamiliar with Russian, German, Georgian history then you will be better informed after reading this novel. I can’t imagine a reader unfamiliar with it being able to understand the choices made nor the traps the characters all fall into. It makes for a more involved investment not all readers are interested in making. I, however, ate these pages. The horror of the times isn’t lost on me, my family has a history rife with Russian occupation and bullets, after-all Russia invaded Hungary. Poverty, hunger, cruelty, war, death, civil unrest- it feels like my own family history. Choosing which side your loyalty lies in a divided country is like choosing your own poison. People talk big who don’t understand living in fear and this novel certainly sheds light on the terror of the powerless.
There is a line about Kitty branded in my head, ‘she was a survival artist’, and the truth is every woman in the Jashi family has to be with their rotten circumstances or curse… “tomato, tamahto”.
I was riveted from the start and urge readers to dig into this novel full of riches. You can’t shake more story out of it. I was exhausted with all the emotional hijacking and I loved every moment of it. I won’t gush in a long winded review, because you need that precious time to invest in this novel. The characters fall into such a deep abyss that it’s a wonder there is a descendant (Brikla, for whom this is all told) that made it through her family’s traumas at all. It’s hard to feel sorry for myself looking back on history. I don’t say this often, but Nino Haratischwili is a hell of a writer. How do her characters occupy her head space, with all their desires, regrets, rage? Yes, read this book! Remember you have been warned, it is not a light read.