Hard by a Great Forest by Leo Vardiashvili - review by Isaac Sligh

Isaac Sligh

Georgia on His Mind

Hard by a Great Forest


Bloomsbury 338pp £16.99

The ancient city of Tbilisi – squeezed between cliffs and mountains into a winding valley along the banks of the Mtkvari River – has witnessed trade, conversion and invasion from every direction of the compass for the better part of two millennia. Strolling through the Old Town, one sees a cross-section of Georgia’s history, from a Zoroastrian fire temple and ancient Christian churches to examples of Soviet brutalism and garish modern casinos. 

The city’s heady atmosphere of decay and effulgence has long called for effective treatment in an Anglophone novel, a challenge the British-Georgian writer Leo Vardiashvili takes up in his debut, Hard by a Great Forest. In this book, drawn in part from the author’s own background, we meet Saba, a young man who was smuggled out of civil-war-torn, post-Soviet Georgia in the early 1990s with his father, Irakli, and brother, Sandro, for a hardscrabble life in London. Saba’s mother, Eka, was left behind; Irakli scrimps and saves to get her out as well. A fellow Georgian, promising to help, betrays the family and runs off with their money. Eka passes away soon after. 

When the main story begins in 2010, Irakli has just mustered up the courage to venture back to Tbilisi, where he promptly disappears. Sandro goes in search of him and disappears as well. And so, when Saba returns to his old homeland for the first time, it is in search of his family and answers about the painful past he left behind. 

Saba befriends a Falstaffian taxi driver named Nodar, and together they search the city for clues left behind by Irakli and Sandro, dodging corrupt policemen and shadowy figures along the way. Irakli has hidden messages on pieces of paper in various places and Sandro has spray-painted graffiti riddles. One

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