#RivetingReviews: Lizzy Siddal reviews THE EIGHTH LIFE by Nino Haratischvili

Whenever I mentioned that I was reading The Eighth Life, the inevitable response was ‘that’s some undertaking’. It was, and I was worried about what I’d committed to; but not for long. After reading for an hour, ‘intimidating’ had become ‘special’, and just eleven days later, after 337,220 words of seamless co-translation by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin, ‘special’ had become ‘magnificent’. I had read my book of the year.

Haratischvili had not intended to write such a lengthy novel. Its original scope was the impact of perestroika on her home country, and former Soviet satellite, Georgia. Then a beautiful house in Tbilisi, one that she had admired every day for years, was revealed to have been owned by one of Stalin’s successors, Lavrentiy Beria. Excavations uncovered unmarked graves from the Stalin years. That, however, was no place to start. Haratischvili needed a moment in time when everything had seemed possible and opportunities endless, and for that she scrolled back to the Russian Revolution, a time of change that mirrors the novel’s ending during Georgia’s political demonstrations of 2007.

Fluidity and repetition are concepts encapsulated within the figure eight. So it is within Haratischvili’s plot. Time flows, patterns repeat in both political and personal spheres. Characters’ lives are interwoven ‘like the threads of a carpet’. An intriguing exercise in parallel narrative gives way to chronological storytelling that prevents the huge cast of characters from becoming unmanageable.

The Eighth Life is a dramatic family saga, written for Brilka Jashi by her aunt Niza. Niza relates the lives of eight members of the family, their relationships and entanglements – particularly with the unfortunate Eristavis – with much love, honesty, wit, and at times, rancour. In the words of the most tragic, Kitty, this is:

‘Life, as it was. Life with its murderers, its classrooms, the cheated, the left-behind, the words that had no meaning any more, life with its miracles and coincidences, its kisses and revulsion.’

The scope is Tolstoyan: the drama of War and Peace, the emotion of Anna Karenina. However, just as Georgia is ‘a nation that looks at itself through others’ eyes’, this is history seen mostly through the eyes of women who are either left at home, exiled or otherwise alienated. Not that men are sidelined. Kitty’s brother, Kostya, is the embodiment of the Soviet regime, its mindset, dictatorism and corruption. A sprinkling of Allendesque magic realism is added, along with a handful of spirits and a secret recipe for delicious and addictive hot chocolate that appears to curse those who drink it.

Whether it is the chocolate or the realities of historical circumstance that precipitate the downward spiral is a matter of interpretation, but in a Buddenbrooks-like manner the Jashis decline both in social standing and influence with each generation. Pre-Russian Revolution they inhabit high society. Six generations later, Brilka, the eighth Jashi of note, is an orphan raised by her grandmother in a rundown dacha. Yet the narrative has brought us to the present; and the future, as yet unwritten, belongs to her. The extraordinary final page proves it.

Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal

THE EIGHTH LIFE

Written by Nino Hartischvili

Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

Published by Scribe (2019)

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Lizzy Siddal is a British bibliophile and book blogger. She runs German Literature Month every November, now in its tenth year, on her blog Lizzy’sLiterary Life.

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