Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016; 448 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Following the acclaim of his debut short story collection, East of the West, author Miroslav Penkov delivers his debut novel, Stork Mountain, a wonderful and richly layered book about the people of Bulgaria. For generations, their lives have been shaped by their homeland’s complicated history, leaving them with uncertain futures. When the novel begins, our unnamed narrator has arrived in Bulgaria’s Strandja Mountains to sell land. Born in Bulgaria, the narrator left with his family to America after the fall of the Soviet Union. As an adult, he has returned to Bulgaria to see some of the family property and pay off school debt. The narrator can’t quite adjust when he arrives. He’s too American now for the Bulgarian natives and his estranged grandfather, an ex-Party member who generates conflict with everyone he meets.
During the narrator’s stay, he meets Elif, a Muslim college student with a rebellious streak. Elif has never ventured far from her home and seems to be at odds with the shy and lost narrator who has made a life far from the place he was born. Their friendship blossoms into a romance, which becomes a point of conflict for them because of her father, a strict imam from her Muslim community. What future can they have together? What future do they have in Bulgaria?
Stork Mountain overflows with the complicated history of Bulgaria and the people who live there. In the novel, Penkov beautifully weaves in the history, tales of communist oppression, folklore, and cultural conflicts that have dogged the native people for generations. Even with 25 years having passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, the citizens in Bulgaria struggle to define their culture after years of having it dictated to them. The narrator, whose American life is largely unknown to the reader, makes for an excellent vessel to introduce the readers to these stories because he’s as much a stranger as us. He is filled with curiosity for a home he never really knew and still desires that connection to it, even as he tries to sell off his last stake to the land.
Penkov writes with an assured style, both in the grace of his sentences and his ability to wade the reader deep into the culture and language of Bulgaria that doesn’t treat us like tourists. Penkov demonstrates a level of confidence in his work that’s rare in an author so young. With Stork Mountain, he’s written a beguiling book of family, love, and heritage.