Goodreads Review of Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe by Inara Verzemnieks

Three star review, originally posted here on May 31, 2019.


This was a tough one to rate, and really I think I come down more around 3.4 stars than three- technically I’m more than neutral on it, but not quite more enough to say I liked it.

Starting with the obvious pro: I’m a child of Latvian refugees; Verzemnieks is the child of Latvian refugees; the protagonist is the child of Latvian refugees. So, yeah, I obviously have a very personal connection to this subject matter. Verzemnieks does an eloquent job of telling the full Latvian WWII and post-war story, including recent history when the Latvians wedged apart for decades come back together to compare notes. I’m not sure just how clear or interesting all this history is to non-Latvians who pick up this novel; hopefully clear and interesting enough that they learn something or are inspired to research further, but I’m too close to the subject matter to know.

The second major plus: this novel is BEAUTIFULLY written. Verzemnieks certainly has a way of making her words capture the mood of the story (which is depressing, FYI). She is truly talented in this regard. BUT…

…here’s where I have trouble. Another reviewer said something roughly along the lines of “her beautiful writing is so beautiful that it gets in the way of the story.” I think that pretty much hits the nail on the head for me. There isn’t really much of a story to follow here. At points when plot does seem interesting, it moves too slowly because we have to stop and pause to keep digesting the flood of romantic prose. There is excellent world-building, and lovely intertwining subplots, but its not clear to me what we are building it for or what our main focus should be. At the end our protagonist starts crying because she can release her grandmother’s memory, and I was thinking “Oh… wait was that the point of all this? Huh.”

I think I would still definitely recommend this book to any Latvian-American who would like to read a high-caliber novel about themselves (and who doesn’t!), and hopefully you’ll all find yourselves more drawn in than I was.

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