Devotees of Grimm’s fairytales will recognise the title of this book as the first line of ‘Hansel and Gretel’. In some ways an allegory of the Grimm fairytale, Hard by a Great Forest spins a dark tale of a lost son following a breadcrumb trail to unearth secrets of a family divided and torn apart by politics and history.
That this is Vardiashvili’s debut novel is hard to believe. It’s breathtakingly well crafted. Set in the traumatic aftermath of war in post-Soviet Georgia, the story is inspired by the author’s own experience as a Georgian refugee who escaped to England. It charts the journey of an exile returning to his ravaged homeland to search for lost family.
From the unforgiving perspective of an eyewitness, Vardiashvili depicts a pilgrim’s progress of horror, brutality, grief, tenderness and humour, brushed with the whimsy of magical realism.
Saba, a young boy, and his older brother, Sandro, flee the civil war in Georgia with their father Irakli, leaving Eka, their mother, behind, promising to send for her later. Twenty years later and haunted by memories of the wife who was never able to rejoin him, Irakli returns to their homeland and disappears. Sandro goes in search of him but also disappears.
In a desperate mission to trace his family, Saba also goes back. He is immediately drawn into a hornet’s nest of intrigue when he attempts to follow a cryptic trail of symbols, messages and passages from a play his father wrote. Pursued by the police and besieged by voices of the dead, he determines, no matter the dangers, to piece together the shattered pieces of his family.
While much of the book deals with suffering and the anguish of families ripped apart, the overriding message is one of hope, humanity and one man’s indomitable drive
to prevail against the devastation of war.
Reviewed by Anne Green
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Leo Vardiashvili came to London with his family as a refugee from Georgia when he was 12 years old. He studied English Literature at Queen Mary University of London. Hard by a Great Forest is his first novel.