by Virginia Zaharieva
[Black Balloon Publishing, 2014. 183 pages. Paperback. $14.00]
Reviewed by Alyssa McGrail
In Virginia Zaharieva’s debut novel Nine Rabbits we find ourselves in 1960’s Bulgaria, following the life of six-year-old Manda into adulthood. A girl who starts her life in pieces, Manda discovers as she grows, she has to tackle what has happened to her in order to move on with her life. The story (although it is fiction) reads like a memoir. Manda’s distant first-person narration and the vivid description of Bulgarian culture, mirrors Zaharieva’s personal experience growing up in Bulgaria.
As a child Manda is forced to reside at her Grandma Nikula’s after her mother abandoned her to work a stable job. Nikula is a fiery woman who physically abuses young Manda when childish mischief takes hold. This abuse turns her into a girl who is broken, and she loses the ability to love herself. In the years that follow Manda struggles with finding her own self-worth and begins traveling with ambitious and successful people in attempt to gain confidence.
For the rest of the novel, we follow Manda’s story as she matures, bouncing back and forth in this cycle of what it means to be happy and if she can even get there. This internal struggle is frequently brought out to the reader through Manda’s dreams, stream-of-consciousness, and symbolism. Zaharieva writes these sections in a very vividly. One morning she wakes up from a nightmare about a dragon attacking a child, and says: “I wake up. I think about the women in my family and their cruelty toward men. Their cruelty toward their own selves. I want to make peace with myself. I need tenderness, compassion, and gratitude. I get up, determined not to allow that dragon to destroy anything more. To destroy me. I start giving thanks to myself from morning on, to smother outbursts of my inner cruelty, but the nightmares continue.”
As Manda comes into adulthood, Zarharieva’s plotting becomes more monotonous. When Manda is in her twenties she travels and is surrounded by large groups of characters and we are not able to really visualize them and find value in them, and I found myself skimming over these parts. For an example, when she is with this big group of people she uses “we” a lot instead of “I” and this creates a distance between Manda and the reader. As she travels through places like Paris and Russia and it is very much like a summary of her days like a diary entry. The pacing picks up but less detail is released from the page.
Nine Rabbits is scattered with Bulgarian recipes that are passed down in Manda’s family. The recipes create a counterpoint in the narrative. When the book gets dark, Zaharieva inserts a tasteful recipe to lighten the mood, and when there is a moment of romance, she gives us recipes for foods best eaten in bed. The recipes are characters themselves, and heighten the authenticity of the story.
Make a dish of fruit. Peeled pears, mangoes, and lychees are the most suitable, as well as strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and melon.
Carefully arrange the slices on your lover’s body and eat them slowly. From time to time share the taste of the fruit with your lover.
This snack is refreshing and sharpens the skin’s sensitivity.”
Zaharieva’s autobiographical novel brings forth the image of a beaten down girl grown into a jaded woman. In the final chapters Manda is celebrating her single-motherhood rather than criticizing herself as she sends her son off to college. We watch her regain her strength through many trials and errors. The story becomes one of female empowerment and independence, while never forgetting where you came from and what it has taught you. Manda’s story manages to bring the reader so close to her emotional journey that while remaining relatable to anyone. The secret to life’s happiness is simply within ourselves, we just have to see it. Like what you’re reading? Buy the book here.