The Free World by David Bezmozgis

It’s 1978. The Krasnanskys, Soviet-Jewish refugees from Latvia, are stuck in Rome. Samuil, the patriarch, is suffering from arthritis and the effects of war wounds and tuberculosis. He has been denied entry to Canada, and the family is in limbo. As they wait for a reprieve (or worse) they must adjust their expectations and adapt to life as refugees in Italy.

At the heart of the novel is a clash of cultures. When I picked the book up, I expected this to be a clash between Soviet and Italian lifestyles, but instead the real conflict was between the Soviet-Jewish family members – some (well, one) loyal to the Communist Party, others staunchly Zionist, and the rest rejecting either form of orthodoxy and really just wanting to get to Canada.

Alternating between three narrators and multiple locations and periods in history, David Bezmozgis’ The Free World is an intriguing look at one family’s history, and the effect of world history on their path.  While I enjoyed the changing narrators and looking back at each of their lives, flashback upon flashback (and sometimes, a flashback within a flashback) made for confusing reading. Slow yourself down. Flip back a few pages to make sure you know who is speaking and what year it is. Know your Soviet history (or keep Wikipedia handy if you don’t.) The story is fantastic, and worth the extra effort.

Note: I received a review copy of this novel from HarperCollins last fall, when I was struggling to read all Giller short-listed books before the award ceremony. I did not reach that goal, and then put the book aside to finish my 2011 TBR list. I was pleased to finally get back to it in January.

Hardcover, 384 pages

HarperCollins Canada; $32.99

ISBN: 9781443403993

 ISBN10: 1443403997

2011 Governor General’s Literary Awards Finalist – Fiction. Shortlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.


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