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Juja by Nino Haratischvili

Georgian author Nino Haratischvili makes her English-language debut with Juja, an atmospheric novel exploring the dark allure and dangerous power of fiction. Translated by Ruth Martin, Juja centres around a mysterious cult novel from the 1950s called Ice Age, and its tragic teenage author Jeanne Saré.

We first meet Saré through her chilling suicide in 1953, throwing herself under a train after completing the melancholic Ice Age. This slender volume of a girl's innermost thoughts is published decades later in the 1970s, triggering a disturbing spate of copycat suicides among female readers. After being rapidly withdrawn, it fades into obscurity.

Juja traces the baleful influence of this 'poisoned book' over subsequent generations through a kaleidoscope of fragmented voices and non-linear vignettes. There is the vile and voyeuristic 'Brother' in 1980s France, harbouring unusual, insidious feelings for his sister. In early 2000s Amsterdam, academic Laura is prodded by her student Jan into investigating the shadowy mythos around Ice Age. And in contemporary Sydney, a grieving mother finds chilling parallels to her own trauma in the book's bleak prose.

Each tortured character sees reflections of their own pain within the 'mirror' of Saré's obscure novel, though few have directly read it. They project their deepest fears and desires onto its dangerous mystique. Haratischvili explores this interplay between art and audience, examining how fiction can powerfully stoke the imagination for better or worse.

Juja's non-linear structure takes patience, with the author teasing out connections between far-flung characters over time. Perspectives shift abruptly, demanding close attention. The writing vividly conjures each harrowing inner world, steeped in melancholy. Yet some protagonists feel too similar - indistinct voices wallowing in sadness. Backstories surface gradually, deepening investment.

Laura's amateur investigation with Jan in Amsterdam forms the addictive backbone, as they seek the truth about the identity of Saré and her tragic demise. Every creepy revelation only brings more questions. This detective angle energises the novel, breaking up its pervasive gloom.

By the climax, Haratischvili has knitted together each thread in an elegant denouement and powerful final act. Themes of myth-making, the appeal of fatalism and the gravity of suicide coalesce in a bittersweet ending. While certain plot points strain credibility, the novel succeeds as an ode to the double-edged sword of fiction - offering catharsis to some, yet destruction to others.

Juja makes for a haunting if uneven debut, assertively written with flashes of brilliance. Haratischvili's lyrical prose and mastery of tone shine despite structural flaws. Her mosaic of broken souls and elusive mystery offer many rewards for patient readers, culminating in a provocative statement on art's capacity to both shatter and redeem.

Reviewer: Chris Reed



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