‘To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace’ by Kapka Kassabova ****

Before the virus completely took over 2020, and made it almost impossible to travel without a two-week quarantine, my boyfriend and I had planned a trip to North Macedonia. We were intending to end our holiday with a wild swim at Lake Ohrid, somewhere we have wanted to visit for years. We are hoping that we will be able to embark on this trip at some point during 2021, but for now, I reached for the closest thing I could find – Kapka Kassabova’s non-fiction title To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace.

The Balkans is an area which I have travelled in relatively extensively already, but I find it fascinating to see regions which I love – as well as those which I have yet to visit – through the eyes of someone who is somehow connected to the physical place. Kassabova’s maternal grandmother grew up in the town of Ohrid, beside the lake, which lies ‘within the mountainous borderlands of North Macedonia, Albania, and Greece’. Lake Ohrid, and also Lake Prespa, which can be found relatively nearby, are located in ‘one of Eurasia’s most historically diverse areas’, and are the two oldest lakes in Europe. Ohrid and Prespa are joined by an underground river, and span these aforementioned borders.

‘By exploring on water and land the stories of poets, fishermen, and caretakers, misfits, rulers, and inheritors of war and exile,’ declares the blurb, ‘Kassabova uncovers the human history shaped by the lakes.’ Alongside her personal journey to reach her family’s roots, the author makes ‘a deeper enquiry into how geography and politics imprint themselves upon families and nations.’

For Kassabova, this region, which has housed ‘generations of my predecessors… is a realm of high altitudes and mesmeric depths, eagles and vineyards, orchards and old civilisations, a land tattooed with untold histories.’ The focus of To the Lake, as outlined in the introduction, is as follows: ‘Geography shapes history – we generally accept this as a fact. But we don’t often explore how families digest big historo-geographies, how these sculpt our inner landscape, and how we as individuals continue to influence the course of history in invisible but significant ways – because the local is inseparable from the global. I went to the Lakes to seek an understanding of such forces.’

The first chapter of To the Lake opens with Kassabova’s recollections of her maternal grandmother’s death. Her descriptions of her grandmother, Anastassia, which she goes on to reveal piece by piece, are so vibrant: ‘Surrounded by the mediocrity, conformity and mendacity that a totalitarian system thrives on, Anastassia lived with zest, speaking her mind in a society where half the population didn’t have a mind and the other half were careful to keep it to themselves.’ Her descriptions of her family particularly really stand out; she describes her mother thus, for example: ‘She always felt to me precariously attuned to life, as if born rootless, as if needing an external force to earth her.’

Some of Kassabova’s writing is undoubtedly beautiful – for instance, when she writes ‘Ohrid made you feel the weight of time, even on a peaceful evening like this, with only the screech of cicadas and the shuffle of old women in slippers’ – but there are some quite abrupt sentences and sections to be found within To the Lake. It does not feel entirely consistent at times, and Kassabova does have a tendency to jump from quite an involved history of the area to a conversation with someone who lives there, and often back again, without any delineation. This added a disjointed feel to the whole. However, the value and interest of the information which she presents was thankfully too strong for this to put me off as a reader.

To the Lake is certainly thorough; it was not a book which I felt able to read from cover to cover in one go, as it is so intricate – both in terms of the history and geography of the region, and of Kassabova’s own family. There is a great deal within the book which explores national divides throughout the lake region, as well as the religions which are practiced. Kassabova seems to focus far more upon the differences of the people whom she meets, than their similarities. There are some brief nods to fascinating Slavic folktales along the way, which I wish had been elaborated upon. Regardless, To the Lake is an important book, and an ultimately satisfying one, which I would highly recommend.

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