Your first impression of Nine Rabbits by the Bulgarian author Virginia Zaharieva, you think you picked up a memoir instead of a novel. Flipping though, you see recipes spattered around the short chapters. You see almost unrelated snapshots of a childhood and then womanhood. When you take a dive into the book (because that’s what you do; you find yourself swimming in the prose, drowning in the story), you have to remind yourself that this is a novel and not a memoir. These events are not an autobiographical account of a life of a poet growing up in communist and post-communist Bulgaria. This is fiction.
Translated by the talented Angela Rodel (18% Gray, Thrown into Nature), Nine Rabbits is the first of hopefully many of Zaharieva’s books to be published in North America. The translation seems flawless; the reader would believe that the novel was written in English. I presume that it is just as lyrical and magical in the original Bulgarian.
The novel follows Manda from her upbringing in her tyrannical grandmother’s house to when Manda is a middled-aged woman struggling with her identity as a creative woman. The reader is transported through the eyes of Manda to 1960s communist Bulgaria, a world where communism isn’t in the vocabulary of a six-year-old. Instead, there are descriptions of the huge gardens tended by Manda’s grandmother and herself. At the end of most of these early chapters there are recipes describing wonderful home cooked food that only grandmothers can make. Written and handed down, perfected, to the younger generations. Filled with nostalgia, these recipes beg to be made. Eccentric instructions and all.
In the second part of the novel, Manda is an adult, married and with a young son. Braving the international world as the wife of a famous actor from a rich family, Arman, we see Manda raging against her stifling husband who refuses to let Manda be herself: a creative individual who is just as talented as her husband. The reader is dragged along Manda’s process of self-discovery through various countries and locals. It almost goes without saying that there is a separation of Arman and Manda that leads to Manda’s freedom, but leaves Manda with herself and her thoughts. The road to self love is a hard and bumpy one. And, in a strange meta twist, we realize that the book we are reading is indeed a memoir, but of Manda’s and not of Zaharieva’s.
Water plays a large role in the novel, whether it’s an ocean, a river, a waterfall, or even rain. With each passing chapter, the reader witnesses a layer of Manda eroding. Slowing softening those sharp edges and replacing them with smooth ones, like a river stone. The novel too is like the tide; grabbing you and dragging you out from the shore before you realize what’s happening. It’s no use fighting, you’re at the whim of the sea and the novel. You know not where it’s going to take you, but, really, you don’t mind. However, the chapters aren’t truly sequential; there’s a chapter with Manda’s new lover in her mountain-top house long before we actually meet the new lover himself. This leaves the reader disoriented and slightly removed from the narratives at times. Another disappointment is that the recipes that are so prominent in the first few chapters disappear almost completely. As a narrative tool, the recipes beg the reader to be made. They are mouth-watering (although, very, very, much Czech and Bulgarian home cooking). When they fall by the wayside in the later half of the book, the reader is left lost as to why the recipes were there in the first place.
Even with the slight disappointments, with Nine Rabbits, we discover a world that is unknown to the majority of Americans. Perhaps even the majority of people under the age of 35 worldwide. This novel is among the most celebrated books in Bulgaria, and it deserves to be just as celebrated here. Zaharieva’s voice is like a cool glass of water, or a dip in a clear blue ocean, or the feeling when you dangle your feet into a bubbling brook. Refreshing and something that will stay with you long after the day is over and the sun has set.