Hana is the English-language debut of Czech writer Alena Mornštajnová, translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood, and what a way to introduce oneself. It is an utterly stunning achievement. It has sold over 100,000 copies, been translated into 13 languages, and has won multiple awards – and once you start reading it, it’s very easy to see why.
The story begins in 1954 with a typhoid epidemic in the small town of Meziříčí in what was then known as Czechoslovakia. Mira is nine and orphaned by the epidemic, finds herself having to go and live with her strange aunt Hana, who wears only black, rarely leaves the house and barely even speaks. Completely ignorant of her family history, getting to know her aunt is a struggle for Mira, but as we start to delve into the past we begin to understand why.
The middle section of the book then takes us back in time, to the Second World War, and we start to see first-hand where the oppressive guilt Hana carries with her comes from, and to understand why she carries a slice of bread with her everywhere she goes. We start to recognise characters from the present day appear in unexpected roles, and when we return to the present day in the final, heartbreaking section of the book, we view the characters through completely new eyes.
I finished this book at approx. 3:30 AM on a school night because once I started reading I simply could not bear to put it down. The prose is an absolute joy to read and the ease at which Mornštajnová moves between places, narrators and points in time is just astonishing. Full of twists, turns, and gut-wrenching revelations, this is storytelling at its best, and the level of empathy which Mornštajnová creates in the reader for her characters is unparalleled. As ever, Julia and Peter Sherwood’s translation is exemplary, navigating the voices deftly and allowing the sparse, raw beauty of the prose to shine.
I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s an emotional read, and I’m not going to lie, I had a bit of a cry afterwards. But it’s a book that grabs you by the throat and won’t let go, and I think we’re all in need of a few of those right now.
Hana by Alena Mornštajnová, translated from the Czech by Julia and Peter Sherwood, is published on October 1st by Parthian Books. Buy now from the publisher or your favourite indie bookshop. Thank you to the publisher for the advance copy!