The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway (2021 International Prize Longlist)

(from Goodreads.com)

Between the wash block and the dormitories there’s a wide green field covered in small pear trees. Everyone, young and old, stays well away. The trees produce pears every year without fail and everyone stays away from them too, for the lovely green field is permanently mired in water. Whether it’s water flooding in from an old broken pipe or rising up from an underground spring, nobody knows. At first glance, the water seeping up through the soil is barely visible. The field looks so enticing, especially to new arrivals at the school, who run out onto the field and then slow involuntarily, ominously, as their feet sink into the waterlogged soil. So the pear trees just stand there with their knotted trunks and tangle of low-hanging branches, alone and forsaken, and every spring they bring forth large, shiny green pears which nobody touches.

Is there a better analogy between these pears and the children who live in Tbilisi at the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children? “Alone and forsaken…which nobody touches.”

Except that isn’t exactly true. Many of them are touched, and more, in all the worst ways. My heart broke for Lela, the eighteen year old who tries in so many ways to be the mother for the younger children who live there. She is especially attached to Irakli, and they frequently go next door to ask permission to use the phone so that he can call his mother, Inga.

It is so tragic to me that Inga dropped him off, with the promise that she will return, but she never does. Every time he asks her when she’s coming, she says something like, “Soon darling!” Until the time he calls and finds she has left for Greece, and the next time he calls the number he found for her home there, an elderly woman shouts angrily that, “Inga doesn’t live here anymore!”

An American couple asks for photographs of the children, which Madonna and Tiniko take. They have decided to take Irakli’s picture, too, even though they usually only take pictures of children who have no family.

‘Where’s Irakli?’ asks Tiniko, looking around. Lela thinks she must have misheard. But no, it appears that Irakli’s mother has chosen Greece over her son and given him up for good. Lela steels herself and walks back to the school, determined to find Irakli and tell him the truth. She wishes she’d said even worse things to his mother. All she can think now is that Irakli needs to know. He needs to know that his bitch of a mother abandoned him and that he had no fucking idea.

Yet, the American couple want him. Lela decides that Irakli must learn some English if he is to go to America, and so she hires Marika, an old friend of hers, to teach him some useful phrases. Hires Marika? How can this girl pay for English lessons with no job? In the only way she knows, by getting five kopecks from Koba for…

John and Deborah come to school to pick him up; he is especially chosen to return with them to America. They have grey hair, and their children are grown up. It seems a most somber situation for Irakli to adjust to: a new home, in a new country, with old parents. Without Lela.

At the airport, Irakli decides to use his newly learned phrases.

John puts his hand back on Irakli’s elbow and turns him around. He looks at him warmly and gives a calm, kind smile. Irakli pulls his arm free and screams, ‘Fuck you, bastard! I kill you! I kill you!

And yet, despite all the horrible ways that the children are treated, I was so glad that they had each other, that they could form a family of their own in the midst of their adversity. Every aspect of the novel, for there are far more characters and stories within this story, touched my heart quite deeply.

Thank you to Peirene Press for a copy of The Pear Field to review.