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Chernobyl Strawberries, the memoir of a woman writing to make sense of the circumstances of her life

Michelle McGrane

Click on book cover to buy this book!
Chernobyl Strawberries, A Memoir
by Vesna Goldsworthy
Atlantic Books, R170
April 2005
ISBN 1-84354-414-8

I have tasted Chernobyl strawberries. Every spring, winds from the Ukraine bring rain to the fruit nurseries in the hills south-west of Belgrade. In the city, the trees and cobblestones glisten. The scent of glowing berries - the colour of fresh wounds and as warm as live blood - spills through the streets around the market square. The fragrance lingers in the rusty tramcars winding their way around the old sugar factory and the promise of summer overpowers for a while the familiar smells of sweat, tobacco, machine oil and polished wood.

Vesna Goldsworthy (née Bjelogrlic) - radio presenter, poet, wife and mother - is diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. At the time of her diagnosis, her son Alexander is two years old. At the age of forty-one, with death staring her in the face, she attempts to capture her voice, her family history and her lost country for her son, so that he can hear it if and when he wishes to.

Goldsworthy was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1961 to middle-class Serbian parents. Her mother headed the finance department of Belgrade's City Transport Company and her father was a code-breaker working for the General Staff of the Yugoslav National Army. She enjoyed an indulgent childhood and adolescence in a sequence of comfortable homes which become increasingly opulent as her parents' careers advanced, then poorer again as the country began to slide towards its final bloodbath.

In her memoir, the author muses about being a top student at Belgrade University, a young poet who performed her work to a crowd of thirty thousand people at a celebration of Comrade Tito's birthday, and her membership of the Yugoslav League of Communists. She describes how she affects the appearance of an incipient bohemian in her early twenties and smoking "filterless little cigarettes, allegedly favoured by Joseph Vissarionovich, which went very well with tiny glasses of grappa as strong as absinthe, a black duffle coat, a short crop …"

In the summer of 1984 she spent a month studying Bulgarian at the Karl Marx Institute of the University of Sofia, where she met Simon, an Englishman and her future husband. Two years later, at the age of twenty-four, Vesna left her family and her Balkan roots to get married and establish a home in England.

In the early nineties, as the long, bloody agony of Yugoslavia's dissolution gathered pace, Goldsworthy found herself reading news bulletins in Serbian for the BBC World Service. In her chapter "Homesickness, War and Radio" she writes of broadcasting home: "At the same time, throughout the country which I still called my homeland innocent people huddled in the dark, afraid of morning. At the BBC, I always seemed much closer to their pain than anywhere else in London, so close in fact that I felt it all the time. I was my own most faithful listener, a hostage to the stories of death about which I could do nothing but transmit."

Like many writers, Goldsworthy writes to make sense of the circumstances of her life, "the false starts, the dislocations, the fractures, the stitches, the leitmotifs of arrival and departure …" In the process of writing her memoir, she finds this understanding and, in the final chapter concludes, "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."

The author's account of the first forty years of her life is not written as a linear narrative. An accomplished word weaver, she chooses to create a pattern from memory of the colourful fabrics of her life experience using intricate and meticulous stitches which connect people, places and experiences.

Goldsworthy is a fiercely intelligent, independent woman who has an engaging, self-deprecating sense of humour. Unlike the writers of many contemporary memoirs, the author is discreet regarding references to family and friends. Describing herself as "a reluctant accountant of the heart", she is not disposed to unnecessary sentimentality, although her prose is often graceful and poetic. Cherynobyl Strawberries is a penetratingly honest, reflective and elegantly written memoir.

* * *

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 the Kingston's Centre for Suburban Studies. She lives in West London with her husband and young son.

LitNet: 05 July 2005

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