Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Review - The Angel of Grozny

The Angel of Grozny: Orphans of a Forgotten War by Asne Seierstad

Synopsis from the publisher:

In the early hours of New Year’s 1994, Russian troops invaded the Republic of Chechnya, plunging the country into a prolonged and bloody conflict that continues to this day. A foreign correspondent in Moscow at the time, Åsne Seierstad traveled regularly to Chechnya to report on the war, describing its affects on those trying to live their daily lives amidst violence.

In the following decade, Seierstad became an internationally renowned reporter and author, traveling to the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other war-torn regions. But she never lost sight of this conflict that had initially inspired her career. Over the course of a decade, she watched as Russia ruthlessly suppressed an Islamic rebellion in two bloody wars and as Chechnya evolved into one of the flashpoints in a world now focused on the threat of international terrorism.

In 2006, Seierstad finally returned to Chechnya, traveling in secret and under the constant threat of danger. In a broken and devastated society she lived with orphans, the wounded, the lost. And she lived with the children of Grozny, those who will shape the country’s future. She asks the question: What happens to a child who grows up surrounded by war and accustomed to violence? A compelling, intimate, and often heartbreaking portrait of Chechnya today, The Angel of Grozny is a vivid account of a land’s violent history and its ongoing battle for freedom.

My thoughts:

This book is much more than just an account of the orphans of Grozny. Seierstad gives readers a concise, accessible history of the conflict that has raged between Russia and Chechnya for the past 100 years. I went into this book completely uninformed about the situation in this part of the world, and honestly believe I learned enough to understand what has taken place. Seierstad does an excellent job of filling in the history without writing a "report" - she is telling the stories of the land, and the people who live there.

The backbone of the book is Hadijat, the woman who cares for the orphans of Grozny. Seierstad lived with her for quite some time, and paints a realistic portrait of this modern-day heroine - brave, strong, resourceful, but also tired, sometime short-tempered, and afraid. Seierstad never romanticises the characters she encounters. Each has their strengths, and often their weaknesses, and she doesn't sugar-coat either. This has gotten her into trouble with some of her past subjects (see all the past uproar about The Bookseller of Kabul), but I found I appreciated that she portrayed the people with warts and all. Noone is perfect - not the politicians, or the housewifes, or the orphans from the street.

Seierstad's writing is excellent, and drew my interest from the very start. In this paragraph, she describes the first time she finds herself being shot at:

"One week later I'm lying in a ditch. Bullets rip twigs from the trees overhead and graze the top of the incline, triggering a cascade of stones and weeds. In the field next to us the shots land within a few metres of each other. When they hit the ground earth spurts up - just like in the moves, I say to myself. Yes, that is in fact what I'm thinking as I lie with my face in the dry turf and prickly thistles. "

She is equally engaging as she describes talking to a woman whose sons have died for the resistance, or a young man who has chosen to murder his sister as an honor killing. This book is full of the real-life LIFE of the people living through years of war, and Seierstad makes you feel like you know, and in an odd way understand, the choices they have made.

I can't say I enjoyed this book - it's not the type of subject matter to be enjoyed. But it was a completely engrossing, worthwhile read, and I'm glad I spent time in Seierstad's world.

Finished: 3/1/09
Source: Franklin Avenue Library
Rating: 8/10

Challenges: Orbis Terrarum


Wendy said...

I would love to read this book - although it would probably break my heart. Thanks for such a terrific review.

bermudaonion said...

I think we need to read books like this to remind ourselves of all the tragedy going on in the world.

Diane said...

Just to let you know that I think your blog is great and that I gave you an award:

Zibilee said...

I'd like to read this book. The story and viewpoint make it very informative and thought provoking.

One Swede Read said...

I read the Bookseller way back when and I liked her writing style, so I'll probably pick this up too. Thanks for the review.

Richard said...

I'll have to keep this in mind since both the subject and the writing sound so interesting. Nice review (thanks for sharing)!

Abbie said...

Is the style the same as "The Bookseller of Kabul"? There, I thought she overused her 'imagination' and presented what she THOUGHT was in people's heads as what actually WAS there, mixing up fact and possibility? It made me uneasy, and I'd be hesitant about picking her up again. Thanks for this review - it makes me perhaps a little more open!

tuulenhaiven said...

Sounds like an interesting, if difficult read. I may try it. Thanks for the review!