Life under communism in Albania – boring, right? Couldn’t be more wrong. Leah Ypi’s biography of growing up in the small Balkan country is riveting. Using rich descriptions, humour and great intelligence, she draws an intricate portrait of herself, her family, her neighbours and her country before and after the end of communism.

Her parents had a fiery marriage, but they were united in the lies they told her to protect her. They didn’t support the Stalinist government but didn’t discourage her from worshipping Joseph Stalin and ‘Uncle’ Enver Hoxha, the dictator who ruled Albania for 41 years. They also lied about their backgrounds (they only told her the real stories of her grandparents after the regime fell) and talked in code (‘gone to university’ meant jail; ‘dropping out’ meant suicide). The examples of unique moments are endless and endlessly fascinating.

Free (Penguin Press) is also an examination of what it means to be free – in a place where no one was free but everyone was equal, and in the west where we’re all free, but we’re not all equal.

Ypi’s book won the Ondaatje Prize and was shortlisted for several biography awards. It should have won all of them.

Kim Irving


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