4 out of 5 stars

Life growing up with virtually nothing was what they were used to. Her father was not high in the communist regime, but he had some opportunities to travel outside the country with the family and when her mother saw the things that were available in the shops in the West she stood and looked in amazement at the shelves. All that was available in most of the shops in Sofia was queues. She grew up loving her homeland as much as she hated it and when they had the opportunity to leave when Kassobova was in her late teens, they took it. She moved to New Zealand with her family and then in 2005, moved back across the world to the UK.

This book is a series of memories of her childhood there and accounts of her returning there as a visitor. The town of Sofia had bleak apartment blocks to house the workers and their families, there were nicer parts of the town with older buildings and leafy parks, but they were reserved for those in power and with the right connections. One day having visited one of the nicer parts, she turns to her mother and asks her ‘Mum, why is everything so ugly?’ Her mother could answer her, just managing to hide her tears.

She recounts memories of the accident in Chernobyl, a painful year as she lost two grandparents and then the rumours started about a nuclear accident elsewhere in the Soviet Union. People who went out to celebrate the May Day parade were rained on with radioactive pollution and some were to die later from the poisoning. She was slightly afraid of her grandfather, he was an angry man and anyone who wasn’t of the bloodline would be an enemy. Her male cousin was the favourite, as he would carry the family name onto the next generation. In 1989 all of what they had known until that point would change as perestroika swept across the Soviet Block., both her parents would stare at the telly in disbelief as the events unfolded in front of them.

Returning to her homeland in the second part of the book is a mixed bag of emotions. Just looking at the map of Sofia she finds that strange new names of streets have replaced the strange old names. She visits her old school and when she explains to the security guard they used to study there, he waves them in. Some things don’t change though, the bus that she is just about to give up waiting for arrives late, and crawls slowly up the hills. Seeing family members that she hasn’t for so long is full of emotion she offers to pay for the fuel in her uncle’s car knowing that for him it is a quarter of his pension to pay for it. Bumping into school friends and catching up with the gossip is happy and sad at the same time.

Even though she no longer lives there, the ties to her homeland are still there but stretched gossamer thin. It is not your regular travel book where someone moves through a country or a region in a planned way, rather she spends as much time with her memories of the place as she does in the towns and cities seeing what is still there. As with her other books that I have read, she has a beautiful way of writing, it is as much about emotions and feelings as it is about the sense of place. If you have never read anything about Bulgaria before this is a good place to start.

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