Baillie Gifford Shortlist 2017: Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova

Review published on November 16, 2017.

Kapka Kassabova now lives in Scotland and before that resided in New Zealand, but she was not born in those places. Twenty-five years ago she left Bulgaria as a teenager and in this book she returns to her home country. In her childhood, the border between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece was part of the Iron Curtain. A few miles from where she played on the beach was the physical barrier, an electric fence whose sharpest barbs were directed at the real enemy: its own people. It had the reputation of being an easier point to cross over to the West than further North and therefore the woods and valleys crawled with soldiers and spies after those people seeking freedom.

The recent past is just a small part of the long history of this region. Kassabova travels around the region talking to border guards, fire walkers and treasure hunters as well as meeting the disposed and displaced who have made their way from Iraq and Syria. These refugees have walked away from the horrors of war with only the clothes on their back in search of freedom and a new life. There is much more to this landscape that the modern borders sit uncomfortably on top of. Peeling back the layers of past in the dense forests, she travels to springs that have deep pagan roots and are still considered to have healing qualities and visits tombs that add an ancient dimension to the land.

‘It is not for everyone’, Nevzat agreed, but I could see that he loved these villages. He and Mr Karadeniz resonated with the ruinous beauty of this landscape. Because they were its children.

This book is primarily about people of the region as well as the places they inhabit. Kassabova meets and speaks to the people in villages who are seeing their populations plummet and the buildings crumble around them. However, this is not just about those that live in the region; she is prepared to share a coffee or a meal with those that are waiting before passing through to other places, shining a light on the current refugee crisis that is prompting the rise of nationalism in Europe. Most impressive though is Kassabova’s writing; it is elegant and lyrical with a beautiful haunting melancholy about it, immersing you, the reader, in the landscape. Just a quite wonderful book really.

Paul Cheney 4.5/-

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova
Granta Books 9781783782147 pbk Feb 2017

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