Chernobyl Strawberries: A Memoir by Vesna Goldsworthy
Vesna Goldsworthy began writing this book soon after being diagnosed with breast cancer, when her young son was still only two-years-old. It started as a series of practical instructions to her husband on how to cope should she no longer be with them – bills that would need his attention, how to work the washing machine and so forth – but the need to leave something greater behind soon took over. And it is perhaps because of its emotive conception that the resulting memoir is such an elegant, honest and consistently fascinating piece of writing.
Goldsworthy (nee Bjelogrlic) was born in Belgrade and grew up during the last years of Tito, before Milosevic came to power and the nationalist cracks began to form across what was Yugoslavia. A child of a Serbian middle class family she lived in the comfortable suburb of Zharkovo and took regular skiing holidays in Herzegovina. She was an accomplished student and, during her teenage years, she achieved some success as a writer of poetry. She appears to have revelled in her role as the young bohemian poetess, spending a lot of time in dark little Belgrade bars smoking thin domestic cigarettes and sipping fiery spirits. In her account of this period of her life Goldsworthy captures with real wit and perceptiveness what it was to be, not only a Serb, but a Yugoslav; to grow up under the red star tricolour. Though Tito’s brand of communism was less oppressive than that of many other Eastern Bloc countries, an ill-judged comment could still result in a spell in prison, and, when Goldsworthy is given the opportunity to read some of her verse in public, she is obliged to lip sync to a pre-recorded tape.
In the mid eighties she left Yugoslavia behind, marrying into an upper middle class English family and moving to the outskirts of London. She now works as the Director the Centre for Suburban Studies at the University of Kingston (where the boxy concrete buildings remind her of the city of her childhood.) There’s a pleasant non-linearity to her writing, the narrative skips between London and the Balkans, as snatches of stories are recalled and revisited. Though, occasionally, this approach means that certain important events get swallowed up in the flow of memories.
Not always the easiest of narrators to warm to, Goldsworthy displays a certain self belief, especially in her attitudes to the men in her life, that could be construed as arrogance. But this impression is undercut by a streak of rare, raw humour that punctuates the memoir – the recollections of her formidable “Granny” are particularly wonderful.
Chernobyl Strawberries is permeated by a love of literature: of shiny new books and libraries and words on paper. When her illness is initially diagnosed Goldsworthy attempts to comprehend the amount of time she may have left by mathematically working out how many books she could still read. Not enough is the answer, how ever many years she allows herself. And she writes with remarkable freshness and fluidity for someone to whom English is not a first language; the imagery she employs of often startling and frequently moving. As a young woman she studied a number of languages – Latin, Greek, French, Russian, English - “with varying degrees of determination and success” and she insightfully examines what it is to learn to write, and to think, in another tongue, especially when her first language, Serbo-Croat, “officially does not even exist anymore.”
Goldsworthy goes on to describe her illness and treatment in the same precise, considered tone. Though cancer and conflict run through this memoir like, well, the Danube and the Sava rivers run through Belgrade, they never dominate the narrative. This is not a cancer diary, nor an intense personal account of the war in her home country. In fact, during the bombing of Belgrade, she was living in West London, reading Serbian bulletins for the BBC World Service and, understandably, 'phoning her parents nightly.
Her husband’s ancestors were old Colonialists, serving in India and Africa, and there is an attempt to parallel this vanished world with the one of her communist childhood, her new scars with those of her fractured homeland. In a deeply personal, original and absorbing work, Goldsworthy successfully encapsulates what it is to come from this place that no longer appears on the map, but still very much exists in her mind and in her heart.