This is a book about Macedonia, or as per its new name – North Macedonia. Kapka Kassabova, author of the award-winning Border, a book about her birth-country of Bulgaria, now turns her attention to the birth-place of her older family members: Lake Ohrid, an ancient lake spanning North Macedonia and Albania, whose shores are home to an extraordinary melting pot of people, religions and cultures. She also travels to the neighbouring Lake Prespa, crossing into Greece to do so.
Kassabova has a remarkable talent for finding stories and the people who harbour them. Through her meetings with long-lost family members, poor fishermen, disgruntled youth, determined mountaineers and lonely hotel owners of every possible demeanour, she stitches together the history of this beautiful but blighted corner of the Balkans. Everyone has a story, because no one, not even Kassabova who grew up away from this region, can remain untouched by the succession of bloody 20th century wars, or by the rule of barbaric dictators of various political persuasions.
‘We are the same people,’ is a common refrain throughout this book. Many of those Kassabova meets at the lakes say they feel like one civilisation, yet even now, her journey is dictated by borders. She meets Macedonians who escaped to Albania, Albanians who later escaped to Macedonia, and Macedonians who found themselves within the borders of Greece and were liberally punished for it. With so much division and bloodshed, this cannot help but be a tragic story. Kassabova’s skill is that she manages to balance the horror with the optimism of the brave and resilient people she meets and with her own deeply personal discoveries. ‘Don’t let the bastards divide me again,’ she writes. ‘Our tragedy is fragmentation.’