‘As our plane left Romania that day in 1965, I swore never to return.’
Gouch’s first book is a memoir of her exile from Romania during the military dictatorship that followed World War II, amidst remnants of anti-Semitism from Romania’s early alliance with Nazi Germany.
She vows never to return, and yet the pull of her native homeland is too strong. Gouch’s story begins 25 years later, as she takes her Australian family back to Romania, to the province of Transylvania. ‘Not the land of Dracula and vampires,’ she writes, ‘but of mountains and rivers and exquisite birdsong. The land where stories and legends are born.’
They are there to visit her brother Tom, who was left behind the day her parents gathered the few possessions they had—clothes, linen, blankets, shoes, three salamis and two dozen cigarettes—and travelled to Israel: The Promised Land.
‘We rarely talked about my brother, a young man with a limp and a feeble right hand, but his presence followed us like a shadow,’ she writes.
As Tom shares his story of survival without his family during the rise of Romania as a Stalinist police state and the fall of communism following the Romanian Revolution, Gouch discovers forgotten family stories of love and loss.
This book is as much Tom’s story as it is Gouch’s, each memory visually rich and artfully transcribed. But the structure—jumping from childhood to adulthood to adolescence and back again—could be jarring for some readers. Tom’s story is written in first-person narrative, with only a slightly narrower margin to let the reader know the story has switched perspective. Gouch also interrupts Tom’s story from time to time, adding historical information and personal thoughts that can be confusing.
However, Gouch does have some lovely transitions between her story and Tom’s, which demonstrate her natural flair for writing; ‘in between cigarettes and silences,’ she writes, ‘he told me his story.’
As we delve deep into Gouch’s childhood and the stories of her mother surviving the Holocaust, her English falters, as though she’s reverting back to her native Romanian. Although it’s difficult to read at times, it does give an authentic voice to the story.
Ultimately, the real treasure in this book is Romania: its allies and enemies; freedom and oppression; natural beauty and heartbreaking tragedy. The land where stories and legends are born.
Sarah Morton is a freelance copywriter and MA Creative Writing candidate who is besotted with words, good stories and hot chips.