‘I really loved this book and couldn’t put it down. Chernobyl Strawberries passed my very simple test for what makes a really good read – I just wanted to know what happened next. It is incredible to think that the Belgrade where Vesna Goldsworthy grew up – and which she describes so brilliantly – is now an utterly vanished world, despite existing right into the 1980s.’
Tim Judah, author of The Serbs
2005, £14.99 hardback
How would you make sense of your life if you thought it might end tomorrow?
Vesna Goldsworthy breezed through life – a top student at Belgrade University, a presenter of a fashionable radio programme, a poet who performed her work to a crowd of thirty thousand people, a member of the Yugoslav League of Communists, a descendant of one of the fiercest Montenegrin tribes and, perhaps more than anything else, a pampered child of the Serbian middle class. In 1986, at the age of twenty-four, she left Yugoslavia for London to marry an Englishman she had met at the Karl Marx Institute in Bulgaria two years previously. She had no doubt that she would be just as good at being English.
At the BBC World Service, where she worked for seven years, she broadcast news bulletins about her own country’s bloody dissolution and learnt – faced with the ghosts of her childhood amid the rubble — that she could still tell “her side” simply by how much it hurt. She wanted to keep her mother tongue alive but ‘now knew more words for dying than the Inuit know for snow’. Becoming English was not so simple after all.
Vesna started writing the story of her life when she became aware – faced with the diagnosis of breast cancer when her son was only two – how strange his mother’s life might one day appear to her child. Surrounded by mementos of her son’s British ancestors who served in the furthest reaches of India and Africa, she wondered if the story of the communist world she came from was even stranger, precisely because it had disappeared so abruptly.
Writing a book through which her son could continue hearing his mother’s voice, Vesna learned how to make sense of the fractures and dislocations which marked her life just as surely as the scars which now ran across her body:
‘In its fragmented way, my life makes perfect sense. There is nothing extraordinary about it, but, as I try to write it down, I can feel it burning.’
In prose that is exquisite in its precision, Vesna tells the story of herself, her family and her lost country. Although purportedly an account of forty years in the life of a passionate woman, Chernobyl Strawberries marks the births and deaths of whole worlds. Vesna Goldsworthy’s captivating memoir about identity, love and belonging marks the emergence of an irresistible new literary talent.
‘What an achievement! A distinguished book written with grace and power – much more than a memoir.’ Dervla Murphy
Vesna Goldsworthy has worked in publishing, for the BBC World Service and as a university teacher. Her first book, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination, a study of the ‘Wild East’ of Europe in literature and film, was published to broad critical acclaim in 1998 and has since appeared in a number of translations. She is Senior Lecturer in English at Kingston University, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at University College London, and Director of Kingston’s Centre for Suburban Studies. She lives in West London with her husband and young son.
From the reviews of Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (Yale UP 1998):
‘A genuinely valuable and fascinating piece of work…richly entertaining’
Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph
‘A wonderful study, which incisively analyses Western stereotypes about the Balkans’
Carlin Romano, Chronicle of Higher Education
‘Energetically sustained, meticulous and gripping in its detail’
Alan Brownjohn, The Times Literary Supplement
‘The author’s research is prodigious; this is a highly informative book… For cultural Europhiles it is likely to prove one of the best productions of 1998’
Gerald Warner, The European
‘Sober, thoughtful and perceptive examination of an entertainment industry’
Heywood Hale Brown, Washington Post