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The Free World by David Bezmozgis

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

David Bezmozgis is doing very well these days. His novel The Free World is garnering rave reviews in all the serious papers. I picked up this book expecting to be swept away by the story and the writing. I had such expectations not only because of the reviews but also because I was one of those who celebrated his earlier work, Natasha & Other Stories, a wonderful collection published in 2004. So here is his first novel – here are the great reviews – and I am underwhelmed. Yes he’s a terrific writer, but is The Free World a “great” novel – I’m undecided. The reviews are written early on and it is not until a novel is out there being read that it is really known if readers actually like it, so we’ll see with this one. I’ve been surprised more than once at the popularity of a novel that didn’t do much for me. The Free World is definitely worth reading but the reviews led me expect more.

David Bezmozgis writes about a world unfamiliar to most of us – his is the world of the modern Jewish Russian immigrant. These are people leaving the Soviet Union of the late 20th century, people who often have little connection to their Jewish “faith” but have difficulties because of it regardless. One year at the height of the Jewish Russian immigration to Canada my in-law’s invited a family who had recently arrived to share the Passover Seder with us. They were parents and a teenage son who spoke some English. What I remember most about the evening is that they complained about what they had found their lives to be like in the short time they had been in Canada as compared to their lives in Russia. I thought of these people as I read The Free World.

This fictional family is most likely somewhat based on Bezmozgis’ own family and others like them. Their lives in Russia were not free – but they were not necessarily worse than the lives of any Soviet citizen. They were not allowed to freely leave their country until the late 1960’s when there was a new policy allowing Jews to leave Russia to reunite with family members living in Israel. Many of those who left in the 1970’s travelled through Austria and simply detoured, seeking a way to get to the United States. The American Jewish community assisted those who wished to come to the United States – and Canada – where David Bezmozgis himself ended up.

So, we have a fictional family – three generations traveling out of Russia together and ending up for a time in Rome where they must wait for visas to Israel, United States, or an option they hadn’t considered, Canada.

At the centre of the story is Alec, a likeable young man, and his wife, Polina. There are also his parents, and his older brother, Karl and his wife and children. All are expecting to pass through Rome, staying just long enough to get visas that will allow them to carry on to join other family members in Chicago. They stay longer than expected – and while there give readers a view into their lives, and the lives of others waiting in this limbo land for passage to the free world.

Alec and Karl and their parents are not observant Jews – but some members of the family and others in the cast of characters are – some with a desire to go on to Israel. I know enough about Judaism to understand the Jewish expressions in this novel but I did wonder if some readers who know nothing about Jewish observances would simply find some scenes incomprehensible, and whether it would matter.

This novel made me think about the “free world”, and how these people left almost everything behind in the “unfree world”. They bring a few possessions but mostly they bring the influence of their past experience. I did appreciate how these characters who had grown up with, and lived in, a corrupt and brutal society, might have difficulty in adjusting to another sort of society. We read about the Russian Mafia – and this novel, especially through the character of Karl, makes it easy to understand how bribery and corruption are part of the life these people lived, and something they bring with them to the “free world”.

Some of these immigrants will come with an ability to take advantage of the freedom they will find here and they will work hard to make a meaningful life – with or without their religion having a place in that life. Others, perhaps like the father in this story, had no real desire to leave and come only with bitterness about what they have left behind and the lack of opportunity to be found here. They may find that the free world really isn’t free after all.

And the fact that there is this much to think about, and discuss, after reading this novel, says something about the appeal and success of The Free World after all.

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