Kristian Novak’s Dark Mother Earth is a fraught work involving tragedy, mythology, trauma, and history. Set in northern Croatia, the novel follows the tortured memories of a stalled writer, Matija. It begins in present day Zagreb and flashes back to his childhood during Croatia’s struggle for independence. It’s a powerful book that arises at the intersection of national identity, repression, and oppression, and that shows the dangers of groupthink.
In his thirties and with two successful books to his name, Matija is struggling to produce new work. His relationship with Dina is on the brink of collapse. Matija has difficulty telling the truth about his family, his history, and his life. Dina delivers an ultimatum: if he doesn’t stop lying, she will leave. Matija revisits his memories to locate the cause of his lying.
Matija’s village and childhood come alive thanks to expressive characters who relate to each other in complex ways. The local mythology is a strong presence. Matija’s father’s death is impactful; daily life in the village changes with the political environment. Everyone is affected, and there’s a spate of suicides. Matija’s personal emotional tragedy is entwined with the effects of the political tensions, resulting in an eerie tale of alienation, fear, and blame.
The work flows between the distant narration covering Matija’s adulthood and Matija’s own narration of his childhood. Descriptive, terse language helps it to speed forward. Matija’s story is a keen reflection of what life was like for villagers in northern Croatia during the fall of communism. Dark Mother Earth is a dynamic and gripping novel that is unflinching and honest when it comes to exploring national identity.
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