This novel is loosely based on the life of the Gypsy poet Papusza. Traveling across Europe – from Czechoslovakia to Hungary, Austria, Italy and France – the book focuses on Zoli Novotna, a young woman raised in the Romani tradition. As fascism spreads over 1930s Eastern Europe, the orphaned Zoli and her grandfather flee their home and join a clan of traveling Romani harpists. Despite the potential censure of the traditional clan members, Zoli’s grandfather teachers her to read. Her curiosity and zeal for learning are sharpened by her reading, and she becomes a symbol of a supposedly new culture of tolerance in the Soviet Union. She adapts the ancient songs to the new times, and has her fame grows the ruling Communists begin to use her for their own repressive purposes. Eventually she is cast out from her family and tribe, and finds that the only way to survive is to abandon her past and make the trek to the West.
I was intrigued by the back story of this novel and the critical acclaim (The Washington Post, The New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle among others) landed it on my tbr. There is some beautifully evocative writing herein. For example: By early evening it seems to her that the darkness has begun to lift itself out of the earth, overtaking the grays and yellows of the marsh floor. It rises to the top of the trees and shoulders against the last patches of light. She considers a moment that it is, in fact, more beautiful than she has ever created in words, that the darkness actually restores the light. The trees more dark than the dark itself. But they are sandwiched between long passages where I was completely bored. I never felt any connection to Zoli or the other characters in the book. The ending was rather abrupt and dissatisfying, leaving me with more questions than answers.