It feels like a cliché to call a book like this epic but it really feels like the best way to describe this family saga. At over 900 pages, this is a book that brings to life both a family and a country. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about the country of Georgia as I began The Eighth Life but learning about history through novels is one of my favourite things and Haratischvili did not disappoint.
Our narrator is Niza, telling this family saga to her young niece, Brilka. In order to tell it properly she tells Brilka (and her reader), she has to start at the beginning. This takes us back to the beginning of the 20th century and Niza’s great-grandmother, Stasia. Stasia lives a comfortable life, the third daughter of a prosperous chocolatier. Her father is the owner of a secret, irresistible chocolate recipe. However, he comes to believe it is cursed and chooses to pass the secret along only to Stasia.
We follow Stasia into marriage, through revolution and world wars. We also get to know her youngest sister, the beautiful Christine, whose physical attraction is both her power and her curse. We are introduced to Stasia’s two children, Kostya and Kitty. Kostya follows in his father’s footsteps in the military and after surviving the horrors of World War Two in Moscow, becomes a high-ranking official in the Soviet Union. Kitty endures unspeakable torture to protect the man she loves but the fallout of what is inflicted upon her eventually forces her to flee her homeland for the West.
Kostya’s desire for control leads him to mold his only child, his daughter Elene, to be his perfect idea of a modern Soviet girl but the pressure on young Elene is more than she can bear and the promise that Kostya saw in her seems to disappear as she drifts from one relationship to another and becomes a young mother to Daria and Niza.
Woven in with this family’s story is that of the Estravi family. Sopio Estravi and Stasia become close friends after meeting at one of Christine’s parties full of powerful people and Stasia pledges to protect Sopio’s son when she is arrested. But the ties between these two families through subsequent generations become increasingly complicated.
Haratischvili does an excellent job of weaving in the true history of Georgia and its complicated history with Russia and the Soviet Union. Even the faintest knowledge of this time and place will warn you that this is going to be a book full of tragedy and dark times. That said, it never felt unduly dark as I read. Amidst the bleak reality of life through revolution and war, there was also a lot of beauty and Haratischvili wisely kept much of the focus on family, relationships, and love.
As I’ve said before, any book over 900 pages can benefit from some editing and the plot did start to feel repetitive as the story progressed, particularly in the relationships between the Jashi women and the Estravi men. The reader knows from the beginning that we are working towards the in person meeting of Niza and Brilka but I found when that moment came, I wasn’t that interested in those two particular characters. For me, the heart of the story was really closer to the beginning with Stasia, Christine, and Kitty. However, this could speak more to my own historical interests. All told, I found The Eighth Life to be an excellent book.
This book was translated from the German to English by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin.