Friday, 3 April 2020

To The Lake by Kapka Kassabova

To The Lake by Kapka Kassabova
Published by Granta Books on the 6th February 2020.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa. Two vast lakes joined by underground rivers. Two lakes that seem to hold both the turbulent memories of the region's past, and the secret of its enduring allure. Two lakes that have played a central role in Kapka Kassabova's maternal family. 

As she journeys to her grandmother's place of origin, Kassabova encounters a civilisational crossroads. The Lakes are set within the mountainous borderlands of North Macedonia, Albania and Greece, and crowned by the old Roman road, the via Egnatia. Once a trading and spiritual nexus of the southern Balkans, this lake region remains one of Eurasia's most culturally diverse areas. Meanwhile, with their remote rock churches, changeable currents, and large population of migratory birds, the Lakes live in their own time. 

By exploring on water and land the stories of poets, fishermen, and caretakers, misfits, rulers, and inheritors of war and exile, Kassabova uncovers the human history shaped by the Lakes. Setting out to resolve her own ancestral legacy of the Lakes, Kassabova's journey unfolds to a deeper enquiry into how geography and politics imprint themselves upon families and nations, and confronts her with questions about human suffering and the capacity for change.

I nearly didn't choose to download a review copy of To The Lake from NetGalley because I wasn't sure whether this would be a book I would enjoy or not. The cover image didn't particularly inspire me and I hadn't previously heard of Kapka Kassabova so it was only the fact of her Bulgarian nationality giving me another WorldReads box tick that swung my decision. Thank goodness it did! To The Lake is a wonderfully informative memoir and I loved Kassabova's prose style so much that two more of her books have already found their was on to my To Be Read list!

To The Lake is written from the point of view of Kassabova's journey to a historic hub of Balkan (and beyond) civilisation which also happens to have been her formidable grandmother's home. Kassabova wants to understand herself in the context of her maternal family line as she sees herself repeating their wandering behavioural traits. In doing so she also learns and shares the history and culture of the remarkable Lakes, Ohrid and Prespa.

I was completely hooked by To The Lake from start to finish which is quite an achievement for a nonfiction book. I frequently found myself wishing to travel in Kassabova's footsteps and visit this fascinating place for myself, albeit I know that my experience there would sadly bear no relation to hers - my lack of knowledge any of the Balkan languages being the first rather high hurdle. She makes the Lakes sound so beautiful and I loved every moment of learning their history. Lake Ohrid is currently on the border of three independent nations, but the land barriers have been changing for hundreds - or probably thousands - of years as succeeding empires have risen and waned. Roman, Greek, Ottoman and Soviet cultures have all left their marks, as have numerous religions some of which are still practiced, others of which have been lost or blended together. For Kassabova to have such an intensely personal connection to this place gives her real insights into the makeup of the people who live here.

To The Lake is a dense book of information and if I thought I had managed to retain a tenth of what I was told from this first reading, I would be delighted! What I loved though was that Kassabova's engaging prose didn't leave me feeling like I was studying a history text. She truly brings these villages to life so I could envisage the Albanian family escaping at the dead of night in a tiny boat; the ancient painted Christian saints with their gouged eyes; the prim women who didn't dare walk down a street twice on the same day. This is a wonderful read which I think should find an appreciative audience beyond just memoir or travelogue readers. If the current lockdown has you feeling somewhat claustrophobic and you enjoy travelling in books, I'd highly recommend giving To The Lake your attention.

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  1. A five star read is always cause for celebration!

    1. To The Lake is just brilliant! I must find myself more of Kassabova's writing :-)