Hard By a Great Forest by Leo Vardiashvili: ‘They say you can never go home again.’

Cover image for Hard by a Great Forest by Leo Vardiashvili It was its Georgian setting that attracted me to Leo Vardiashvili’s debut, Hard by a Great Forest. It’s a part of the world I know little about although what I’ve read suggests that it’s beautiful enough to make me want to visit were it more peaceful. Vardiashvili’s novel takes its narrator back to the country he left with his father and brother when he was only eight, leaving his mother behind. Both Irakli and Sandro have disappeared, one in pursuit of the other.

Tbilisi happens to sit right on top of the most direct route from Asia into Europe. A key strategic location for many a psychopath emperor. The Ottoman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Russian Empire – they all sliced their way through Georgia.

Sandro has been missing several weeks when Saba decides he must follow his elder brother in his quest to find their father. All three had left Tbilisi in 1992, escaping the civil war which broke out after Soviet funding ran out. Eka, divorced from Irakli, had insisted that they leave, desperate for her children to be safe. Eighteen years later, Irakli has returned sending a message to his sons telling them that he’s a wanted man and that they must not follow him. Sandro goes first, then, after no word from his older brother, Saba follows leaving his vestigial London life behind. When he arrives, his passport is confiscated. Dazed and with nowhere to stay, he’s picked up by Nodar ridiculed by the other cab drivers for his wreck of a car. Spotting an opportunity for much needed cash, Nodar offers Saba his daughter’s room, and his wife’s delicious cooking for a sum ridiculously low by British standards. Nodar helps Saba navigate his way around this city he barely remembers as he follows the trail of clues left by his brother, haunted by the voices of his dead family and friends and followed by a detective obsessed with avenging his own father.

Don’t let the day beat you, whatever it brings.

Saba tells his story, weaving childhood memories through his pursuit of both his brother and father. It’s a colourful, often funny, narrative, full of escaped zoo animals with which the city is obsessed, cleverly wrought clues left for Saba and a rich cultural background, but visceral at times. Nodar’s character is particularly well done, a man bruised and angry yet managing to retain his humanity in the most difficult of circumstances. As Saba and Nodar take off on a dangerous journey which leads them over the closed border into the breakaway Ossetia, the narrative takes on the pace of a thriller and the humour drops away. This is a novel about the fallout of the Soviet Union, both economic and political, and its effects on ordinary people: the horrors of civil war, the loss of family, the sacrifices made. Vardiashvili knows how to spin a good story, reminding us of the horrors perpetrated by those who seize power but also that there will always be hope.

Bloomsbury Books: London 9781526659828 352pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

14 thoughts on “Hard By a Great Forest by Leo Vardiashvili: ‘They say you can never go home again.’”

    1. By strange coincidence, an escaped macaque is in the news here. Currently described by excited media as ‘on the run’ in the Scottish Highlands. Hoping all will end well for it.

  1. I’m glad you read & reviewed this one as it received much praise this month when it came out. It sounds good and the ending sounds like it quickens. I wonder if it has lessons for Ukraine’s citizens.

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