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Hard by a Great Forest by Leo Vardiashvili
Literary fiction

Hard by a Great Forest


We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Leo Vardiashvili, on your first book!

by Leo Vardiashvili

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Quick take

Following bread crumbs left behind by his brother and father, a Georgian émigré tries to put his family back together.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_FamilyDrama

    Family drama

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_NonLinear

    Nonlinear timeline

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_International


  • Illustrated icon, Icon_GraphicViolence

    Graphic violence


Saba is just a child when he flees the fighting in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia with his older brother, Sandro, and father, Irakli, for asylum in England. Two decades later, all three men are struggling to make peace with the past, haunted by the places and people they left behind.

When Irakli decides to return to Georgia, pulled back by memories of a lost wife and a decaying but still beautiful homeland, Saba and Sandro wait eagerly for news. But within weeks of his arrival, Irakli disappears, and the final message they receive from him causes a mystery to unfold before them: “I left a trail I can’t erase. Do not follow it.”

In a journey that will lead him to the very heart of a conflict that has marred generations and fractured his own family, Saba must retrace his father’s footsteps to discover what remains of their homeland and its people. By turns savage and tender, compassionate and harrowing, Hard by a Great Forest is a powerful and ultimately hopeful novel about the individual and collective trauma of war, and the indomitable spirit of a people determined not only to survive, but to remember those who did not.

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Hard by a Great Forest



“Where’s Eka?” We must have asked a thousand times.

Our mother stayed so we could escape.

See, war trumps most things. You’ll find that a volley of AK-47 rounds fired right down your street will override almost any other concern. We heard gunfire by night and saw brass twinkling on the pavement in the morning, as though it had rained shell casings all over Tbilisi. Sounds manageable so far.

But when a stray tank shell breaks the sound barrier by your bedroom window, screams on, and deletes the corner grocery shop and the entire family living above it, you’ll begin to make plans. Our parents, Irakli and Eka, made plans to get us all out, divorce be damned.

Getting out of the country meant shady bribes, stolen travel stamps, and counterfeit certificates. What money the family scratched together was barely enough for one parent and us children. Eka didn’t even have a passport. Together we couldn’t leave the country.

Meanwhile, the civil war was warming up, bullet holes in familiar places and people no longer a surprise. We had to go. Eka stayed and we escaped with Irakli.

That’s how we became motherless, Sandro and I. I was eight and Sandro was two years older. At that age, the difference was a whole ocean of experience. Even so, Sandro had no inkling of what motherless meant, and neither did I.

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Why I love it

“A man without history is a tree without roots.”

I first learned about Georgia my freshman year in college while planning a conference. It immediately struck me as a remarkable country, straddling Europe and Asia, full of history and unique culture reflecting this inbetweeness. It is the birthplace of Joseph Stalin and of wine, pockmarked by scars of conflict. Until recently, I had never read a novel about Georgia. That changed with the incredible debut Hard by a Great Forest.

When a civil war erupts, Saba flees Georgia with his father and brother. Emigration comes at a steep price. The trio must leave behind their heart: mother and wife, Eka. As years pass and they try to make a new life in the United Kingdom, each holds out hope Eka has survived and awaits their happy reunification. But one day the boys’ father breaks down and abruptly returns to their motherland in search of Eka and quickly goes missing. Saba’s older brother soon follows and also disappears, leaving Saba with a perilous choice. Follow suit and return to the land he left as a boy or stay in an adopted country where he remains alienated…

Thus begins an odyssey of homecoming. Saba returns to a Georgia full of shadows, dark humor, and myths. As he tries to unravel the mystery of his family, he comes into his own. This is a beautifully tender and heartbreaking book about the importance of grappling with our pasts to fully inhabit the present.

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