Peirene Press set out to publish three high quality contemporary novellas a year. They look for some of the finest literature in the world and then publish three works connected by a particular theme. The Dead Lake is the first book in their Coming of Age series and I was really excited about reading when I first heard about it.
This beautiful story really captivated me from the very beginning when the narrator encounters Yerzhan, who appears to be a twelve-year-old boy but it transpires that he’s actually at 27 year old man.
Yerzhan lives at the Kara-Shagan station on the railway line. There’s just two families living here and Ismailov gives a great account of the lives of these families and the extraordinary bond that grows in such a close-knit community. The language he uses to describe life in the Kazakhstan steppe is delightfully evocative and we’re really taken in by the richness and variety of the landscape.
Yerzhan picks up music at a very early age and it’s not long before people are describing him as a wunderkind. He dreams of music and sees different coloured notes walking around like men of various shapes and sizes. Even the faces of people remind him of various pieces of music.
He idolises Dean Reed and wants to grow up to look him, even learning to read in order to learn more about him. He wonders what side Reed would be on in the third world war. The anxiety over the possibility of war rumbles through the novel with real fear in the air and a feeling that a America must be overtaken in order to save the world.
Atomic weapons are being tested nearby and the deep rumblings in the ground rise up inside of people. Animals are behaving wildly and dead towns are depicted. Kids are frightened at seeing a film for the first time and it’s difficult to imagine the fear they must be feeling with the menace of every explosion.
The Dead Lake of the title is a lake that formed afer the explosion of an atomic bomb and it’s after Yerzhan steps into this lake that his growth remains stunted. His sweetheart continues to grow while he remains bitter and frustrated at his fate.
This story is one that’ll certainly remain for me for a long time. It proves that a vast world of ideas can be drawn in just 120 pages and I’ll certainly be very keen on reading the rest of Peirene’s Coming of Age series.