Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin
The Eighth Life is an astonishing six-generation family saga. A triumph of a novel that will take you through the most important events of the 20th century seen through the eyes of a Georgian family: the Jashis.
The story is narrated by Niza Jashi for her 12-year-old niece Brilka. The novel is divided in eight books, each one named after the main characters. It begins in 1900 with Stasia Jashi, the daughter of a master chocolatier. Stasia marries Simon Jashi and will have two children: Kostya (b. 1921) and
Kitty (b. 1924). Then comes Stasia’s beautiful sister Christine (b. 1907), who marries Ramas. Their marriage is childless. Kostya will have one daughter, Elene (b. 1953) who will have two daughters from different fathers: Daria (b. 1970) and Niza (b. 1973). Brilka (b. 1993) is Daria’s daughter and to whom the story is dedicated.
It may sound complicated to follow, but The Eighth Life is written in such a skilled way that the flow of events and characters are simply perfect. It is impossible to get lost. Every page matters because along the way she makes Stasia, Christine and Kostya monumental figures that keep the plot strong and relevant throughout each one of 944 pages of the novel. Nino Haratischwili’s storytelling is breath-taking, and so is her ability of positioning the reader as witness of key historical events: from the turbulent end of the House of Romanov, to the Bolshevik Revolution and birth of the Soviet Union, the brutal years of Stalinist repression, to the Prague Spring, the fall of the Berlin Wall all the way to Perestroika to the collapse of the USSR and the cruel, long Georgian civil war.
The Eighth Life is also a depiction of lives lived to the full and lives cut short. Kitty Jashi’s story, for instance, reflects on the importance of freedom. All sorts of it: freedom to think, freedom to love or not to love, freedom to move and to stay put. She is the victim of a regime of ruthless repression where an innocent life is taken away from her in a distressing event. An act of revenge forces her to flee to Britain to become a dissident musician. But trauma never leaves her, the scars of an age of total authoritarianism stay in her life like stains that are impossible to wash away. Kitty is a reminder of the fragility of liberty and life itself.
Nino Haratischwili’s novel is not only about heart break and turbulent family stories. The Eighth Life also looks closely at the social tissue and shows how easy it is for those at the top to become corrupt. Kostya Jashi, the patriarch of the family is a fascinating character hungry for influence who escalates to the very top of the establishment. A man with an enormous pride, a womanizer, prepared to use his influence to serve his country with vicious consequences for his loved ones, in particular for Kitty, his sister.
The novel has a beautiful rhythm and it’s ending feels as natural as old lives extinguishing to give way to the new generations. Those with dreams and hopes for a better future and the reason Book 8 entitled Brilka is blank. Her story is yet to be written, her life is still ahead of her in a Georgia that is changing, but with a painful and difficult historical past.
The genius of Nino Haratischwili is never ending. Each chapter is crowned by a series of thought- provoking epigraphs by some of the greatest names in Soviet and Russian 20th Century literature: Anna Akhmatova, Andrei Bely, Danil Kharms, Marina Tsvetaeva, Pushkin and Chekhov, mixed with Lenin, the Generalissimus (Stalin) and public officers like Viktor Chebrikov and Mikhail Gorbachev. Some of the Western names include President Nixon, Bob Dylan, Earth, Wind and Fire blended with Soviet poster slogans and fragments of the Soviet National Anthem.
There is so much to say about this novel and its characters Christine, Elene, Daria, Sopio, Andro, all of them that I’m envious of those readers yet to discover the brilliance of The Eighth Life. I am grateful for translators Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin for bringing this extraordinary book into English. We all need a novel like this in our lives. 2020 may only be starting but I feel I’ve found my book of the year.
Jimena Gorraez Belmar 5/5*
The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischwili
978-1911617464 Scribe UK Hardback Nov 2019