In his first novel, The Free World, David Bezmozgis finds beauty in a layover from hell

In his first novel, The Free World, David Bezmozgis finds beauty in a layover from hell

(Image: Spencer Heyfron)  

David Bezmozgis’s debut, the 2004 collection Natasha and Other Stories, was an unlikely success, given its targeted subject: Toronto’s ex-Soviet Jewish community. It won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, made the New York Times Notable Books of the Year list, was blurbed by both Jeffrey Eugenides and T. Coraghessan Boyle, and earned a “scary good” from Esquire. His first novel, The Free World, which comes out this month, has already been excerpted in the New Yorker, and the magazine recently anointed Bezmoz­gis one of its “20 Under 40.” The Free World works as a kind of thematic prequel to Natasha. It’s set during an obscure historical episode in the late 1970s, when thousands of Jewish families emigrating from Russia, Latvia and other Soviet republics were forced to sit and wait in Italy for months while countries such as Canada deliberated on whether to let them in. Bezmozgis—who was born in Latvia 38 years ago and grew up at the north end of Bathurst Street—is not the first author to mine the plights of his immigrant cohort or the story of its arrival. But he is up to a lot more than simply dramatizing family albums. His tale of one clan’s extended layover in Rome and its outskirts is laced with cultural and historical ironies, dark comedy, heartbreak and outbursts of violence. Though Bezmozgis is far from a stylistic innovator—not for him the bravura set pieces or genre bending in vogue among many of his peers—his prose has an almost cold-blooded elegance. Even as he drills down further into the past of one small group, Bezmozgis is doing what all great writers do: building an entire world in fiction.


BOOKS
The Free World
David Bezmozgis
On shelves April 2