The joy of the steppe, the joy of music and joy of childhood always coexisted in Yerzhan with the anticipation of that inescapable, terrible, abominable thing that came as a rumbling and a trembling, and then a swirling, sweeping tornado from the Zone.
Yerzhan is a young boy, growing up on the remote steppe of Soviet Kazakhstan where nuclear weapons are tested on his doorstep. He intends to marry the girl next door, the only girl next door for miles and he has a talent for music. But when he dives into a polluted lake, the water changes him. Yerzhan will never grow into a man.
The writing is beautifully evocative, creating a vivid picture of the wildness of the steppe and the culture of Yerzhan’s family. Their life in isolation is simple and timeless, the period only set by the Cold War and its atomic legacy.
The explosions are both a horror and something in the background. Something that just is and the families get on with their everyday lives against a backdrop of dread. Uncle Shaken argues that the nuclear experiments are their communist duty; they must not be left behind the Americans, but mostly, the explosions don’t impact their simple lives as much as you would think. Not until Yerzhan goes for his swim in polluted waters. It’s interesting to think that something we would be terrified of, nuclear bombs, is just part of normal life.
Of course, it is also a story about a boy and a girl. A boy who doesn’t grow up whilst she becomes taller than her father. A boy who is left behind; a common fear of adolescence. Yerzhan also becomes obsessed with the stories of Gesar, relating them to his life.
The Dead Lake is the first in Peirene's Coming of Age series, translated from the original Russian by Andrew Bromfield and is available from 27th February 2014 in paperback. Hamid Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan and has lived in Uzbekistan and now the UK, writing in both Russian and Uzbek, although his books are banned within Uzbekistan. He is definitely a writer I would like to read more of. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review, this is my favourite Peirene to date!
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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.