“A fast didn’t go fast; it was the slowest thing there was. Fast meant a door shut fast, firmly. A fastness, a fortress. To fast was to hold fast to emptiness, to say no and no and no again.”
4.5 out of 5 stars
An English nurse, Lib, travels to a small town in Ireland for a two-week job. She learns up on arrival that she was not hired to be a caretaker but to simply be an observer of an 11-year old girl, Anna. Anna’s family claims that Anna has not eaten for four months and is instead sustained by divine will or influence. The Catholic priest and a local committee have sanctioned a 24-hour watch to find out the truth. Lib is confident that she will discover evidence of a hoax before the end of the two weeks, but she soon realizes once the watch begins that this puzzle is more difficult to solve that she anticipated.
I devoured this book. It was so intriguing that I struggled to step away from it even for a little bit as I wanted to keep pushing through the story to get to the bottom of the mystery. When I first started reading it I thought I was going to get bored. I mean, how complex could this story really get? I never got bored. It is a mystery that kept unraveling, and when I thought the protagonist had figured most of it out, the story would unravel even more and lead to more questions. I found myself asking questions alongside of Lib’s inner dialogue as she worked through all the possibilities and tried to consider all the angles.
The Irish history and landscape painted a vivid backdrop, and the insight into Irish Catholicism and the culture of the time made the story even more intriguing. I felt emotionally invested in Anna’s situation and felt anxious about the actions or lack thereof from all the adults around her. I gasped aloud in frustration more than once and felt genuinely concerned about how this story was going to end. The book also made me very hungry. 🙂
“We wear clothes, and speak, and create civilizations, and believe we are more than wolves. But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.”
The setting is war-torn Chechnya in 2004. Explosions and disappearances are a way of life. After watching the Russian feds arrest his friend and set his house on fire, Akhmed is relieved to find his friend’s 8-year old daughter Havaa hiding in the woods and knows he must take her to a safe place. Sonya, a talented and overworked surgeon who is haunted by the disappearance of her sister, agrees to take in Havaa in exchange for Akhmed’s help at the hospital. Meanwhile, someone is still looking for Havaa.
The heart of the plot takes place over only 5 days, but the whole story unfolds through various character perspectives and flashbacks throughout the previous ten years. At first the setting distracted me from everything else. I knew next to nothing about the Chechen wars and paused in between chapters to do some research and get a better understanding of the history. I was shocked to learn how much of the historical context of the novel is true, but it helped me grasp what the characters were facing and trying to endure.
The book gracefully dives head first into the strength and resilience that people are capable of when duty and dignity calls for it while highlighting the lasting effects of traumatic experience. The story comes full circle, intertwining together the fates of the characters, materializing meaning in unexpected ways. While there is some hopeful resolution, there also remains a sense of emptiness and loss, which solidifies the book’s powerful impact.
In this book war is life. It’s a haunting story that transported me to a place I’m thankful I’ve never actually been, but it’s important to have exposure to perspectives and experiences different from your own to see what the world for others can be like. This book provided that for me, and it still left me hopeful.
4.5 out of 5 stars