Kapka Kassabova grew up in Bulgaria under the Communist regime, immigrating to New Zealand in 1991, at the age of 19. In the years after her departure, she returned to the country several times to visit older relatives and to sightsee. The first part of this book is a solid 4-star memoir about her childhood; the rest documents her travels and earns 2.5 or 3 stars. Unfortunately, the travel section is the longer.
The memoir immediately captured my attention with stories of life amidst hardship. Although Kassabova’s parents were well-educated, the family lived in two rooms in a shoddily constructed concrete apartment building, surrounded by mud and thousands of other, identical buildings; the chance to buy anything new was so rare and even dangerous (when shoppers physically fought over merchandise) that the author’s mother had a breakdown on a visit to a Dutch department store; and interactions with anyone from the other side of the Iron Curtain were fraught, as they truly came from different worlds. One escape was music; in a twist of irony, as a teenager Kassabova enjoyed protest music from the West. The censors allowed it through because the lyrics raged against the capitalist machine, not realizing that teens reversed the meaning, raging instead against the only machine they knew.
The writing is clear, descriptive, and a little self-deprecating, and so combined with interesting material, the first section succeeds. But then we get to the travel. Kassabova initially presents her trip in 2006 as a return to Bulgaria after many years away, but it soon becomes clear that she has traveled in the country as an adult on several occasions, and she splices these trips together, cutting back and forth between different visits to the same or nearby places, which is disorienting.
There doesn’t seem to be much direction to Kassabova’s travel; the organization of this section felt scattershot, and the reader gets little sense of why we should be interested in these particular places. I’m not sure what the author was looking for on this trip, but don’t believe she found it; the whole book is rather melancholy. Certainly Bulgaria doesn’t seem to have improved much with the fall of communism; the overall picture Kassabova paints is one of foreign investors getting rich while regular people struggle to get by without a safety net and smaller towns continue to decay. But I was interested to read about how the country has changed, as well as a bit of its earlier history, and the author’s conversations with the people she meets are often entertaining.
Ultimately, this one is a cautious recommend: certainly worth reading if you are interested in the subject matter, but not the first book I would urge on an armchair traveler.