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The Free World opens in a bustling railway station, Vienna's Western Terminal, where a family struggles to pack their luggage on to a train. It is the late 1970s, and the Krasnanskys are a family of Latvian Jews on their way to the US, or so they think. Their plans to emigrate to the US fall through and their first taste of life in the capitalist West is 4 months in Italy trying to make other arrangements to move on. Cousin Shura in Chicago can no longer sponsor them to travel to the New World.
This sets the scene for a debut novel which combines witty, sharply observed social comedy, with its characters' darker secrets. They have successfully negotiated the Latvian bureaucracy, but they must now deal with the Italian version. They are starting their new lives with help and support from an organisation which helps Jews from the Soviet Union with emigration including travel and some initial accommodation.
The family group includes 6 adults and 2 children - Samuil and his wife Emma, their two sons Karl and Alec with their wives, and Karl's sons. The story is told from the viewpoints of 3 characters - Samuil, Alec and Polina, and shifts between the present and their past lives in Latvia. Samuil is a Communist Party loyalist and until recently in Riga has occupied a position which included a chauffeur driven car, so the Krasnanskys have been used to a relatively privileged position. Alec is a bit of a Casanova - he made a lot of effort to court Polina back home, but now seems to cheat on her at every opportunity, and soon acquires an Italian lover.
Reading the novel, there were a number of things I never understood about the characters' motivations. Why did they leave Latvia to seek a new life? Why does Polina put up with Alec? I may have missed the answers to some of my questions in reading, but others are never fully explained. Still, this is not a plot driven novel. The Krasnanskys are often quite unlikeable, but I found them very real and believable in their issues and ethical and moral dilemmas. I also found Samuil's personal history, including fighting in World War II and his brother Reuven, fascinating. Beyond the family, I also liked the portrait of Lyova aka Luigi, a man who emigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel a few years before, but has never really felt happy there and has returned to Europe, saying he dreams of living somewhere without constant military parades.
At the end of the novel, I found myself wondering where the family will end up and whether life in the West will fulfil their dreams. As Bezmozgis himself emigrated from Latvia to Canada with his family as a young child, and this novel has many biographical elements, we know some of the answers.
The Free World is a thought provoking look at a wave of emigration from the former Soviet Union I don't know much about.
This review first appeared at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
Published by Penguin Viking, May 2011
Trade paperback RRP £12.99, Amazon £8.49, Kindle download £8.99