Book Review for “Four Minutes” by Nataliya Deleva (translated by Izidora Angel).
Summary: “Giving voice to people living on the periphery in post-communist Bulgaria, Four Minutes centers around Leah, an orphan who suffered daily horrors growing up, and now struggles to integrate into society as a gay woman. She confronts her trauma by trying to volunteer at the orphanage, and to adopt a young girl—a choice that is frustrated over and over by bureaucracy and the pervasive stigma against gay women. In addition to Leah’s narrative, the novel contains nine other standalone character studies of other frequently ignored voices. These sections are each meant to be read in approximately four minutes, a nod to a social experiment that put forth the hypothesis that it only takes four minutes of looking someone in the eye and listening to them in order to accept and empathize with them.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Speculative, Women, Fiction; Settings: Contemporary; Bulgaria; Other Categories: Connected Short Stories; Translation; LGBTQIA+; Triggers: Violence, Rape, Child abuse, Refugees (all non-graphic).
This is one of those books that’s going to be very difficult to review, but that happens a lot with speculative fiction (except for Atwood). You see, I can’t really call this literary, because there are some dreamlike elements here, as well as this being a type of collection of short stories that are all connected. I may be wrong, but since there’s nothing fantastical here, I think the best genre for this is speculative. Obviously, it is also women’s fiction, since our overall protagonist here – Leah – is a woman and all of the stories connect with her, and are from a female perspective. In addition, there’s the LGBTQIA+ element, and certainly a type of #OwnVoices since Deleva is Bulgarian and she’s writing about people in post-Communist Bulgaria – even though Deleva now lives in the UK. The fact that this is a translation, means that I this review is also participating in the yearly Women in Translation Month, which is every August (yeah – good timing, right)!
I have to say that this is a pretty gritty book – as you’ll see above, I included triggers here, which I almost never do, unless the book is as dark as this. Thankfully, Deleva doesn’t get very graphic with these more difficult sections, so they don’t feel like they’re included for their shock value, but rather to help us understand the mind-set of these characters. As depressing and upsetting as some of this could be, I believe that Deleva did an excellent job of balancing the darker parts with the type of language that makes it feel less gloomy. For example, when Deleva says that a girl who hasn’t spoken in five years finally says something and the words “rolled out of her mouth and onto the floor.” Something like that makes you think twice about what Deleva is saying here, and the effect of what has just happened has on the people in the scene. This mixture of how Deleva uses her prose to show the readers what’s going on, is something that I truly admire, and why I call it speculative fiction. As the above example also shows, Deleva’s prose is stunningly beautiful and a real joy to read (and obviously, her translator deserves some of the credit for this, as well).
Because these are actually connected short stories to form one overarching tale, I have to admit that there were times when I felt that the narrative was a bit disjointed at times. As if not every piece fit into the overall puzzle here, and that distracted my attention somewhat. (Mind you, Elizabeth Strout did the same thing with her “Olive Kitteridge,” and she won accolades for that book. Personally, I think that Deleva has done a more cohesive job with this collection than Strout did with hers, but I’m sure that’s just me. Plus, the excellent TV series I watched before I read the book was partially to blame for my not enjoying the book as much as I might have done.)
I should mention that this book is also an important read right now, because it brings up the issues of how people who are marginalized by society feel about themselves, the way they’re treated, how their lives develop, and how others see them. It isn’t easy to hear, but we need to listen, and as the title suggest, we need to look them in the eyes, and get to know them without judgement. Plus, as I mentioned above, the rawness and the pain in these stories is present throughout this book, and that makes it harder to read than many books, despite the poetic language. That’s why I’m sure readers who like heavier themed works will enjoy this a bit more than I did. I’ll still recommend this book, but for me, I think I will give this collection three and a half stars out of five, and tell readers to check out my triggers before they pick this one for their TBR list.
Open Letter – Consortium Books released (will release) “Four Minutes” by by Nataliya Deleva (translated by Izidora Angel) on August 17, 2021. This book is/will be available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery, eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.