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“Among the Living and the Dead” by Inara Verzemnieks (book review)

January 29, 2020

On the surface, this is a memoir of the child of Latvian expats about her return to the ancestral homeland so see the old family farm and come to know the country of her origin.  In it she traces in ever-greater depths the family history, its accomplishments great and small in prewar Latvia, its tragedies and exile, its ultimate return, the final settlement of the refugees in Tacoma.

That’s the surface, the story, powerfully and poignantly told.  The depth is so much greater.  Every paragraph has the depth of a poem, to be taken in slowly and thoughtfully, because it will have great weight on everything that comes after.  Every word carefully chosen, nuanced for a particular feeling, so that the reader is transported to, say, a first day in the old house:  “The dust tasted like the passing years, bits of hair, particles of skin, molecules of worry, specks of joy.”  Or a recollection of exile:  “Was your life in Siberia all sadness?”  “Not at all.  People laughed.  There were dances.”  “Did you feel joy?”  “Now, I wouldn’t go that far.”

Or life under dictatorship:  “. . . they all began to learn that lying could be a kind of truth.  And when truth can be lies, and lies can be truth, then uncertainty is destabilized, but so is uncertainty.”

It helps to have an understanding of the utter upheaval of eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the ebb and flow of Nazi armor through Latvia, and the ultimate victory of the Soviet state. But if you haven’t got that, after you are done reading, you will.  You will share something with those who suffered and survived it.  With them you will for decades in exile of returning to your hereditary farm, your home.  In the end, the reality of it all is this:  you can’t go home again.

This is a rare book indeed, in which every page, every paragraph, every sentence is written with such care, the reader cannot help but be immersed in this true story of exile and loss, of recovery and redemption.

Among the Living and the Dead” by Inara Verzemnieks.  W. W. Norton Co. 2017

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