While Charlotte Hobson's beautiful and moving debut book, Black Earth City
, is likely to end up on the travel shelves of bookshops, it is much more than a straightforward narrative. Telling of a year spent in provincial Russia at the end of the Soviet era, Hobson's narrative also triumphantly comes to embrace the passions of friendship and love.
Hobson begins her book in 1991, when she moves to Voronezh, south of Moscow. Beginning with a chaotic hostel, and then moving through the break-up of Soviet life, Black Earth City introduces us to many vivid characters, which provide a compelling portrait of Russia and the Russians. But the book's centrepiece is Hobson's love affair with Mitya, a young man whose dissolution and disillusion mirror the tragedy simultaneously being undergone by the Soviet Union.
The detail of the relationship with Mitya is rich and honest, and indeed the whole book is suffused with such elegant prose that reading it is a real pleasure. As we are drawn into Hobson's circle of friends, and their affairs and passions, it is impossible not to be caught up with the thrill of being young. At the same time, her portrayals of the relationships, and of the economic imperatives that came to replace the old collective Soviet social order, are so tender that a very Russian melancholy, tinged with joy, is developed.
"Don't think me sad because I'm alone in the world," says one of Hobson's most tragic characters. "I've grown strong, because I rely on myself... each of us is an orphan." Evocations like this allow us to understand the widespread feeling of abandonment, and the grief that so many Russians seem to have felt--at the crushing of the old collectivism, and the arrival of an imported, individualistic way of doing things. --Toby Green
Artful, original and touching -- Anne Chisholm, Sunday Telegraph
Black Earth City is moving and superbly entertaining -- The Tablet
Hobsons poignant tales of the friendships she developed
are told with something of the muted emotion that suffuses Chekhovs short stories -- The Times
Refreshingly and affectionately told -- Daily Telegraph
This engrossing memoir tells of a Russian people coping and enjoying themselves without respect for authority or hierarchy -- The Independent