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Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History

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For precocious 11-year-old Lea Ypi, Albania’s Soviet-style socialism held the promise of a preordained future, a guarantee of security among enthusiastic comrades. That is, until she found herself clinging to a stone statue of Joseph Stalin, newly beheaded by student protests. Communism had failed to deliver the promised utopia. One’s “biography”—class status and other asso For precocious 11-year-old Lea Ypi, Albania’s Soviet-style socialism held the promise of a preordained future, a guarantee of security among enthusiastic comrades. That is, until she found herself clinging to a stone statue of Joseph Stalin, newly beheaded by student protests. Communism had failed to deliver the promised utopia. One’s “biography”—class status and other associations long in the past—put strict boundaries around one’s individual future. When Lea’s parents spoke of relatives going to “university” or “graduating,” they were speaking of grave secrets Lea struggled to unveil. And when the early ’90s saw Albania and other Balkan countries exuberantly begin a transition to the “free market,” Western ideals of freedom delivered chaos: a dystopia of pyramid schemes, organized crime, and sex trafficking. With her elegant, intellectual, French-speaking grandmother; her radical-chic father; and her staunchly anti-socialist, Thatcherite mother to guide her through these disorienting times, Lea had a political education of the most colorful sort—here recounted with outstanding literary talent. Now one of the world’s most dynamic young political thinkers and a prominent leftist voice in the United Kingdom, Lea offers a fresh and invigorating perspective on the relation between the personal and the political, between values and identity, posing urgent questions about the cost of freedom.


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For precocious 11-year-old Lea Ypi, Albania’s Soviet-style socialism held the promise of a preordained future, a guarantee of security among enthusiastic comrades. That is, until she found herself clinging to a stone statue of Joseph Stalin, newly beheaded by student protests. Communism had failed to deliver the promised utopia. One’s “biography”—class status and other asso For precocious 11-year-old Lea Ypi, Albania’s Soviet-style socialism held the promise of a preordained future, a guarantee of security among enthusiastic comrades. That is, until she found herself clinging to a stone statue of Joseph Stalin, newly beheaded by student protests. Communism had failed to deliver the promised utopia. One’s “biography”—class status and other associations long in the past—put strict boundaries around one’s individual future. When Lea’s parents spoke of relatives going to “university” or “graduating,” they were speaking of grave secrets Lea struggled to unveil. And when the early ’90s saw Albania and other Balkan countries exuberantly begin a transition to the “free market,” Western ideals of freedom delivered chaos: a dystopia of pyramid schemes, organized crime, and sex trafficking. With her elegant, intellectual, French-speaking grandmother; her radical-chic father; and her staunchly anti-socialist, Thatcherite mother to guide her through these disorienting times, Lea had a political education of the most colorful sort—here recounted with outstanding literary talent. Now one of the world’s most dynamic young political thinkers and a prominent leftist voice in the United Kingdom, Lea offers a fresh and invigorating perspective on the relation between the personal and the political, between values and identity, posing urgent questions about the cost of freedom.

30 review for Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Maureen

    *3.5 stars * It’s always fascinating to read of other cultures, and Lea Ypi’s memoir of growing up in Albania is no exception. Albania was the last Stalinist state in Europe, and as such, very little was known about it. That all changed with the creation of independent political parties, bringing about the fall of communism, just a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. If some Albanians thought they were already free, they were about to discover what real freedom meant. It would be a time of ma *3.5 stars * It’s always fascinating to read of other cultures, and Lea Ypi’s memoir of growing up in Albania is no exception. Albania was the last Stalinist state in Europe, and as such, very little was known about it. That all changed with the creation of independent political parties, bringing about the fall of communism, just a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. If some Albanians thought they were already free, they were about to discover what real freedom meant. It would be a time of many firsts, as the Ypi family traveled to Greece, the birthplace of Lea’s grandmother, and a time when Lea’s parents finally dared to admit that their country had been an open-air prison for almost half a century. They wouldn’t have dared express such an opinion previously! Sometimes sad, sometimes amusing, Lea Ypi’s memoir brings both communist and post communist Albania vividly to life. It’s a country I knew very little about, so it was both interesting and informative, and well worth the read. *Thank you to Netgalley and Penguin Press UK for an ARC in exchange for an honest unbiased review*

  2. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

    This was unexpectedly brilliant. I say unexpectedly because over the years, I have grown wary of the literature (both fiction and non-fiction) produced around Albanian communism and its immediate aftermath. If not going the route of sterile allegories, those who write about Albania's past tend to portray life under Communism in a way that flattens all complexities for the sake of condensing as much pain on the page as possible. And there are several reasons for that, chief being a belief in the This was unexpectedly brilliant. I say unexpectedly because over the years, I have grown wary of the literature (both fiction and non-fiction) produced around Albanian communism and its immediate aftermath. If not going the route of sterile allegories, those who write about Albania's past tend to portray life under Communism in a way that flattens all complexities for the sake of condensing as much pain on the page as possible. And there are several reasons for that, chief being a belief in the power of narrative to bring about justice. But more often than not these stories are published because they respond to the Western market's demand for such narratives, often to justify the need for the neoliberal reforms pushed by the EU and the NGO industrial complex. Free does not fall into any of these traps. It is nuanced, oftentimes hilarious, a masterful blend of the personal and political, and above all original in its confrontation with Communism and Albania's long transition into a liberal and "democratic" country. From this side of history (and especially to Western readers), there are many aspects to life under Communism that may seem absurd, or improbable. And in reading about those experiences, there can be a tendency to exoticize them, or to feel pity, both on the part of the reader and the writer. It ends up feeling too expository or not genuine. But Ypi manages to sidestep this minefield by inhabiting and writing from the position of the child she used to be, a charming kid who took everything at face value. In doing so, the complex mechanisms of Communism are always present, but rarely interrogated, which allows us to live as little Lea lived: loving xhaxhi Enver and believing in Stalin, yes, but also exchanging gum wrappers for a chance at a sniff, and feeling genuine happiness at having an empty can of Coke to display on top of the TV. This first section had me in stitches. It felt so real, including the tendency to remember communism through the lens of humor. There is this frank quality to Ypi's writing that manages to capture the atmosphere of Albania in those years. I can't quite explain it, unless you've experienced it yourself. It's all in the details really, the brands, the shops, the classes, the vocabulary that managed to survive the end of Communism through the decades. But if the first part of Ypi's book is brilliant in its narrative, the second portion - focusing on Albania in the early 90s - is an absolute tour de force. It is harrowing, poignant, and a masterful analysis of the policies that led to the 1997 civil war; it is also a brilliant takedown of the groups and ideas that were meant to make of Albania a "western" democracy, with a "market economy" and the human costs of these "structural reforms." It is astounding to read how the vocabulary of neoliberalism swiftly replaced a socialist vocabulary; and what's even more astounding is to realize that it's been 30 years, and we are still stuck in the same carousel. It's the same organizations and structures making the same promises and demands; the same dreams of achieving European standards, of being told to fight for freedom, and rule of law -- all while institutions like the World Bank recommend that our government lower its minimum wage requirements to attract more investments. At a time when, the minimum wage requirement is not enough to survive on. And as people leave en masse, Western-sponsored media publish articles where they speak of lazy Albanian workers who are no longer willing to work for scraps, thus "requiring" companies to hire foreign workers. Meanwhile, Albania's putative socialist Prime Minister jokes that foreign workers are better for business because they don't speak Albanian and thus can't unionize. This is a thought-provoking book that I'm going to return to over and over. I did have some minor qualms. As an Albanian reader, I found some of the exposition a bit jarring, and I could always feel the Albanian vocabulary underneath the English, which made it a clunky reading experience at times. The discussion about freedom felt forced in, especially toward the beginning. But still, a wonderful read that doesn't fall into the trap of forgetting that life under a so-called authoritarian regime can be just as uneventful and routine as life anywhere else. Sometimes it's just life.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    (3.75) I knew next to nothing about Communist Albania (apart from what showed up in the novel Brass) before picking this up on account of its shortlisting for the Costa Award. It’s pretty astonishing that there was a country still in this condition in the 1970s-80s: Ypi writes, “When I was born, the chances of survival were put at thirty per cent. My parents dared not give me a name but celebrated the hospital number I was assigned: 471.” Days-long queues for food and kerosene were common. The c (3.75) I knew next to nothing about Communist Albania (apart from what showed up in the novel Brass) before picking this up on account of its shortlisting for the Costa Award. It’s pretty astonishing that there was a country still in this condition in the 1970s-80s: Ypi writes, “When I was born, the chances of survival were put at thirty per cent. My parents dared not give me a name but celebrated the hospital number I was assigned: 471.” Days-long queues for food and kerosene were common. The cover tells a humorous yet troubling story: an empty Coke can, displayed as a decoration, was a status symbol fought over by her family and their neighbours. People were desperate to get out of the country. There came a turning point in December 1990, when the first free election in decades was held, but civil war was still on the way in 1997, a time Ypi records through her diary entries from the time. I enjoyed the recreation of her childhood perspective, though I might have liked at least a short retrospective section from adulthood. The book is quite funny despite the often sobering realities of life as she recounts her parents’ shifting fortunes and the fates of friends and classmates. I was surprised to learn that the family was Muslim, and that the author’s first language was French thanks to her grandmother; Albania is a real mix of cultures (I had to look on a map: it’s above Greece and just across a short stretch of water from Italy). In an epilogue, Ypi writes that this book was initially going to be more of a political and philosophical study “about the overlapping ideas of freedom in the liberal and socialist traditions”; I’m glad we got this instead, as there were already two general nonfiction studies of freedom published in 2021, by Olivia Laing and Maggie Nelson, and a third would have felt like overkill plus would have lacked the charm of a memoir of childhood. “This book was written mostly from a cupboard in Berlin during the Covid-19 pandemic,” she says. In her grandmother’s words, “When it’s difficult to see clearly into the future, you have to think about what you can learn from the past.”

  4. 4 out of 5

    books4chess

    "It wouldn't be exploitation without consent. It would be violence" The story follows a young Lea, learning about daily Albanian life, when the Berlin wall falls, regime change comes and life changes quickly. 1990 was a year like no other for Albania and the migration, rise of pyramid schemes, civil unrest and structural reforms are presented from a very personal perspective. I anticipated an Albanian memoir from which I could learn more about an area of the world and a history that I know little "It wouldn't be exploitation without consent. It would be violence" The story follows a young Lea, learning about daily Albanian life, when the Berlin wall falls, regime change comes and life changes quickly. 1990 was a year like no other for Albania and the migration, rise of pyramid schemes, civil unrest and structural reforms are presented from a very personal perspective. I anticipated an Albanian memoir from which I could learn more about an area of the world and a history that I know little of, yet what I found what something, much, much more. Lea is an incredible writer who engages the reader and takes you on a journey with her. I found myself equally infuriated, as she recalled stories of her family talking in code and her frustrations in not understanding the meaning until later on - an experience recreated in the novel as the reader must reach halfway through the book to also 'crack the code'. But it was worth it, as I was covered in goosebumps and eagerly devoured every breakthrough and realisation. Perhaps what makes the book so good is the totally unexpected twists that surely aren't real - but are. I've never been excessively enthusiastic about philosophy or ideologies, yet the passion and manner Lea discussed them with has left me with a desire to learn more. The way in which she engaged with the ideologies, analysed them and directly applied them whilst seeking more answers was exhilarating and highlighted the importance of true self awareness of our surroundings - not just believing we are 'free' because we are told so. Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC, absolutely 5/5.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ruben

    4,5 - I love memoirs that place a life in the wider historical context. They are a very effective learning device. This one was particularly interesting to me because I did not know much of Albania at all, let alone about its peculiar brand of communism. Also Lea Ypi's family is a very unique bunch of characters with 'biographies' relevant to the larger story. It was fascinating, but what makes it stand out is its humour, warmth and intelligence. The style is deceivingly simple, given that we ha 4,5 - I love memoirs that place a life in the wider historical context. They are a very effective learning device. This one was particularly interesting to me because I did not know much of Albania at all, let alone about its peculiar brand of communism. Also Lea Ypi's family is a very unique bunch of characters with 'biographies' relevant to the larger story. It was fascinating, but what makes it stand out is its humour, warmth and intelligence. The style is deceivingly simple, given that we have a child experiencing the world, but the examples and anecdotes are very well chosen and thought provoking. I thought it was excellent and would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in history and politics.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

    A few years ago, I took a holiday in Dubrovnik. Local tour companies were offering day trips to Albania: a long day trip, passing through Montenegro and into one of the least well-known countries in Europe. I resisted. Honestly, I didn't need to put myself through such a long journey just for the kudos of being able to say I'd been there. Albania still holds that sense of difference. Whether it's the remnants of the most authentically Stalinist regime in the world (a regime that looked down upon A few years ago, I took a holiday in Dubrovnik. Local tour companies were offering day trips to Albania: a long day trip, passing through Montenegro and into one of the least well-known countries in Europe. I resisted. Honestly, I didn't need to put myself through such a long journey just for the kudos of being able to say I'd been there. Albania still holds that sense of difference. Whether it's the remnants of the most authentically Stalinist regime in the world (a regime that looked down upon other communist regimes for being a bit soft) or the fascination with the underworld crime that's been so well publicised by films in which various members of Liam Neeson's family are abducted, you can't deny that Albanis is not like other places. Lea Ypi knows more than most about that difference. And she writes well - if a little dully in places - about her childhood and coming of age at one of the most interesting times in Albania's history. About half the book precedes the end of the Stalinist regime, the rest covers life after, life through the Albanian Civil War, and eventually her decision to leave the country. What I like about this book is that it feels very genuine. As children, we are inclined to be what we're told to be; to support the regime, to sing the patriotic songs loudest and long for a bigger picture of our dear leader on the mantelpiece. It takes almost half of the book for us to learn that all is not as it seems in the Ypi house. Her mysterious French-speaking grandmother, the coincidence of the family surname and a long-gone leader by the same name. All starts to fall into place. Lea learns that freedom is sometimes over-rated and that the end of one regime doesn't always mean paradise from the next. She tells us about the infighting, the politics, the Kalashnikov celebrations, the downfall of the finance 'firms' through a massive pyramid investment scandal, and the wholesale flight of Albanians looking to find safety and fortune in Italy or further west. Many reviewers comment that this is a funny book. I didn't find that to be the case. Mildly amusing at times, but funny is not the adjective I'd choose. Authentic might be. Unapologetic (not that she has anything to apologise for) might be another. She's just a kid with an unusual family living in historically challenging times. It's a good account of a period that I have to admit to knowing little about. I think Albania's challenges may have got lost to the general public amongst the horrors of the extended Balkan conflicts. I recall trying to keep on top of it all when the Balkans first started to fall apart, believing that surely there was a good side and a bad side, good countries and bad ones, good ethnic groups and evil ones. What soon became apparent was that there were many many shades of grey in that part of the world. Albania and the plight of ethnic Albanians in other Balkan countries all got way too complicated for many of us to understand. Perhaps though, the account of one person, one ordinary person and her lived experience can be more powerful than a blow by blow account of everything that was happening in the late 1990s. This isn't horrific. I have read a lot of books from that part of the world at that period and some of them leave me unable to sleep at night. This isn't one of those. You won't read of terrifying or blood-curdling events. it's matter-of-fact, from the eyes of a young person, and I felt an unfiltered honesty in the words. It's about the snob value of an empty Coca Cola tin, about hospitality to strangers and fear of tourists, and about fitting in with some ways and sticking out like a sore thumb in others. Well worth a read. Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for my copy.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Rennie

    I’m glad that I read Mud Sweeter Than Honey a few months ago, because I think that oral history/Polish reportage on Albania gave me a better foundation to appreciate this. But they’re great to have read together. This was really an excellent memoir, if I did feel some remove on the author’s part from some of the more emotional events that I would’ve expected more insight into. Still, the perspectives into a country and era that haven’t gotten a lot of attention on the world stage is so valuable I’m glad that I read Mud Sweeter Than Honey a few months ago, because I think that oral history/Polish reportage on Albania gave me a better foundation to appreciate this. But they’re great to have read together. This was really an excellent memoir, if I did feel some remove on the author’s part from some of the more emotional events that I would’ve expected more insight into. Still, the perspectives into a country and era that haven’t gotten a lot of attention on the world stage is so valuable and I thought the writing was lovely. She has that neat ability to write from a child’s perspective with an adult voice.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jarvo

    This is a beautiful merging of the personal with the political. A memoir about growing up in the most steadfast of Europe's communist countries, and then watching it fall victim to the broken promises of liberalism and the turmoil of the 1990's. Until she is eleven the author is a happy participant in the socialist state, aware of some material challenges - long queues, power cuts - but blissfully unaware that her parents, who speak in code in front of her, are secret opponents of the system and This is a beautiful merging of the personal with the political. A memoir about growing up in the most steadfast of Europe's communist countries, and then watching it fall victim to the broken promises of liberalism and the turmoil of the 1990's. Until she is eleven the author is a happy participant in the socialist state, aware of some material challenges - long queues, power cuts - but blissfully unaware that her parents, who speak in code in front of her, are secret opponents of the system and that she herself will be forever viewed with suspicion because of the 'sins' of her grandparents. The collapse of the system in 1990 sees her life transformed but not always in a good way. The market economy brings people smuggling, drugs, and sex trafficking and, following the collapse of pyramid schemes which suck up most of the country's savings, anarchy and near civil war. All of which would be fascinating enough, but the book is also a covert work of political philosophy, exploring, as its titles suggest, the concept of freedom and the limits to freedom imposed by both socialist and liberal systems. The former are clear enough, several of her grandparents having been political prisoners of one sort or another. But she is equally clear that liberal market economies fall short of enabling true freedom: 'A society that claims to enable people to realize their potential, but fails to change the structures that prevent everyone flourishing, is also oppressive'. This is an impressive and challenging book, especially strong on the shortcomings of the west during the transition period.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kamila Kunda

    How does a child define freedom? What criteria do they use? How do they know whether they are (or are not) free? These and other relevant questions asks Lea Ypi, Albanian author and professors of Political Theory at the LSE in “Free. Coming of Age at the End of History”, a memoir about her growing up in the country governed by one of the harshest communist regimes in the world. Ypi is a few months younger than me, was brought up - like myself - behind the Iron Curtain, but our experiences couldn’ How does a child define freedom? What criteria do they use? How do they know whether they are (or are not) free? These and other relevant questions asks Lea Ypi, Albanian author and professors of Political Theory at the LSE in “Free. Coming of Age at the End of History”, a memoir about her growing up in the country governed by one of the harshest communist regimes in the world. Ypi is a few months younger than me, was brought up - like myself - behind the Iron Curtain, but our experiences couldn’t be more different. When I was playing with Barbie dolls, chewing Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit, wearing German clothes and listening to music from all over the world, Ypi was hugging the statue of Stalin and her mum was arguing with a neighbour about a stolen Coca Cola can one (or both) of them had bought already empty. The world as Ypi had known it changed as she grew older and understood more. Funny anecdotes became sinister, her family’s “biography” (a key word in her childhood) turned out to be more complex than she had thought it was, and words she comprehended in a literal sense depicted another reality once she learned what code had been used by her parents. Ypi’s memoir is a superbly balanced collection of personal stories and a portrayal of Albania in the 1980s and 1990s. Her observations on the fall of communism and a new order are astute and she brilliantly combines a perspective of a child and a teenager with that of her grown-up, educated self. The major questions Ypi asks about freedom, personal independence, self-determination are universal ones, which add the book a philosophical dimension. And the language! Besides writing gripping stories, Ypi is a phenomenal master of language and she knows how to dose suspense. An absolute must-read - this book is really great literature.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Driola

    Easy to read, lovely even. Beautiful writing, beautiful storytelling. It is funny, it is heartbreaking and it captures the historical and isolated Albania with a new and fresh set of eyes. I am often so bored of all socialist related novels of the country, since they’re always repetitive and show tremendous existential dread- the same type of unescapable dread I get from reading them. This was exactly the opposite. I breathed in the pages and the second I’d put it down I couldn’t escape the worl Easy to read, lovely even. Beautiful writing, beautiful storytelling. It is funny, it is heartbreaking and it captures the historical and isolated Albania with a new and fresh set of eyes. I am often so bored of all socialist related novels of the country, since they’re always repetitive and show tremendous existential dread- the same type of unescapable dread I get from reading them. This was exactly the opposite. I breathed in the pages and the second I’d put it down I couldn’t escape the world I had gotten myself into and forgot to differentiate between timelines. Lovely piece of work.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Celine Nguyen

    One of the most striking memoirs I’ve read. Lea Ypi describes her childhood and teenage years through the final years of Albanian state socialism, the post-1990 shift towards a multi-party system and free-market economy, the disorienting and destabilising turn towards free-market neoliberalism, and the Albanian Civil War. It’s rare, I think, to find stories of USSR/communist states that don’t present a flattened ideological narrative—by pandering to Western liberal exceptionalism or misplaced le One of the most striking memoirs I’ve read. Lea Ypi describes her childhood and teenage years through the final years of Albanian state socialism, the post-1990 shift towards a multi-party system and free-market economy, the disorienting and destabilising turn towards free-market neoliberalism, and the Albanian Civil War. It’s rare, I think, to find stories of USSR/communist states that don’t present a flattened ideological narrative—by pandering to Western liberal exceptionalism or misplaced leftist apologia. Ypi’s book feels quite special in that regard! I loved the first half, where she wrestles with her family’s political beliefs (both explicit and obscured) under state socialism—and does so from a child’s whimsical perspective: In my family, everyone had a favourite revolution, just as everyone had a favourite summer fruit. My mother’s favourite fruit was watermelon, and her favourite revolution was the English one. Mine were figs and Russian. My father emphasized that he was sympathetic to all our revolutions but his favourite was the one that had yet to take place. As for his favourite fruit, it was quince – but it could choke you when it wasn’t fully ripe, so he was often reluctant to indulge. Dates were my grandmother’s favourite fruit: they were hard to find, but she had enjoyed them when she was little. Hear favourite revolution was of course the French one, and this annoyed my father no end. ‘The French Revolution has achieved nothing,’ he said now. ‘Some people are still extremely rich and make all the decisions, and others are very poor and can’t change their lives.’ (p. 104) Ypi’s writing is really incredible—warm, sensitive, well-paced, contemplative, analytical. I do feel that the format of a memoir (with really loving, attentive detail to her family dynamics) is especially effective for telling a political and economic history that feels interesting, subtle, engaging. At the end, Ypi writes: My family equated socialism with denial: the denial of who they wanted to be, of the right to make mistakes and learn from them, to explore the world on one’s own terms. I equated liberalism with broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, turning a blind eye to injustice…When you see a system change once, it’s not that difficult to believe that it can change again…My world is as far from freedom as the one my parents tried to escape. Both fall short of that ideal. But their failures took distinctive forms, and without being able to understand them, we will remain for ever divided. I wrote my story to explain, to reconcile, and to continue the struggle. (p. 310)

  12. 4 out of 5

    Bob Hughes

    Tracing the life of an innocent child growing up in politically turbulent Albania, to a young woman who starts to understand the world around her, and what is really going on, this memoir reads both as a set of essays, but also as a novel itself. It is a slow burn, watching at the beginning where young Lea is excited about chewing gum wrappers, ashamed of speaking French because her friends don't understand, and finding out from her parents that she is actually a Muslim despite the country's out Tracing the life of an innocent child growing up in politically turbulent Albania, to a young woman who starts to understand the world around her, and what is really going on, this memoir reads both as a set of essays, but also as a novel itself. It is a slow burn, watching at the beginning where young Lea is excited about chewing gum wrappers, ashamed of speaking French because her friends don't understand, and finding out from her parents that she is actually a Muslim despite the country's outlawing of religious celebration. We see the country through her eyes- her confusion at why her parents don't feel the same about the glorious leader as she does, what all this talk of 'communism' is about, and trying to understand the 'biographies' of everyone around her. However, soon the political situation becomes very real indeed to her, and I read the last section of this book almost breathlessly, my eyes darting across the page as she watches her country and family attacked from all sides. And this is where the book reveals its magic trick- it has kept you in the eyes of an innocent girl through the story, the better to leave you breathless when the real magnitude of it hits. This book is stunning, and truly a remarkable achievement. I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Mandy

    Growing up in Communist Albania, Lea Ypi was unaware of what life was like in the outside world. Born in 1979 when the country had already disassociated itself from other Communist regimes and was firmly under the control of dictator Enver Hoxha, Albania was completely isolated and its citizens told that it was the only country standing up against the wicked empires of both east and west. Ypi grew up to believe that her country was the best. There was no reason not to believe it and her parents Growing up in Communist Albania, Lea Ypi was unaware of what life was like in the outside world. Born in 1979 when the country had already disassociated itself from other Communist regimes and was firmly under the control of dictator Enver Hoxha, Albania was completely isolated and its citizens told that it was the only country standing up against the wicked empires of both east and west. Ypi grew up to believe that her country was the best. There was no reason not to believe it and her parents protected her from any dissent or doubt. So she grew up as a zealous young communist until the 1990s when one-party socialism gave way to a completely different multi-party state and in this perceptive, insightful memoir Ypi describes just what this new world felt like, when almost overnight all the old certainties disappeared. The human cost of this new found freedom was soon in evidence – protests, shootings, civil war, massive emigration and a new economic system. So much to come to terms with. The book is an excellent mesh of the personal with the political and I learnt a lot from it. Albania doesn’t seem to have the attention that other Balkan states receive and this is a welcome addition to the literature of that little known and poorly understood county.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Olivia Newman

    In her memoir, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, Lea Ypi recounts her childhood in Albania. It's a story told in two parts, delineated by the fall of Albania's communist government, and with it, everything Ypi thought she knew about herself, her family, and their place in the nation. Ypi tells her story through a series of anecdotes and reflections, some sad and some funny, with only limited context given on the Cold War, the Albanian government, and the Civil War. At its heart, this boo In her memoir, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, Lea Ypi recounts her childhood in Albania. It's a story told in two parts, delineated by the fall of Albania's communist government, and with it, everything Ypi thought she knew about herself, her family, and their place in the nation. Ypi tells her story through a series of anecdotes and reflections, some sad and some funny, with only limited context given on the Cold War, the Albanian government, and the Civil War. At its heart, this book is about the interplay between the personal and the political in our lives. We're left with some interesting questions about whether we can be truly free, and whether any political system can be deemed wholly good or wholly bad.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Sonya

    Ypi’s memoir describes her life in Albania from childhood to high school. The timeline follows the political and economic life pre- and post- the fall of the Soviet Union and breakup into current Eastern European countries. The memoir describes life under communism, early democracy, and the Albanian Civil War. Part I written in the language of a young, elementary age girl is sometimes confusing as the cultural and political descriptions are in her elementary voice. Part II clarifies to the reade Ypi’s memoir describes her life in Albania from childhood to high school. The timeline follows the political and economic life pre- and post- the fall of the Soviet Union and breakup into current Eastern European countries. The memoir describes life under communism, early democracy, and the Albanian Civil War. Part I written in the language of a young, elementary age girl is sometimes confusing as the cultural and political descriptions are in her elementary voice. Part II clarifies to the reader that the syntax and language evolves as the writer moves from grade school to high school. Part II includes diary entries that range from a crush on a boy to guns exploding outside windows, a sudden unexpected structural change in writing style. The book is unique in its description of life under Albanian communism, the restrictions, harsh punishments, the job and educational opportunity based on family history. Examples of a society suddenly open to western influences were fascinating. Women wearing used clothes from the West as day dresses, not realizing they are nightgowns, and displaying empty coca cola cans as art works, not realizing they are drinks. The author, currently teaching Marxism at the London School of Economics, reflects in her memoir on the pros and cons of political economic structures. Albania falls into chaos a decade into their democratic freedom following the collapse of the economy and rampant pyramid schemes that lose much of private wealth. While fascinating insight into a little-understood country, its politics and culture, the book is structurally confusing and inconsistent. Chapters do not always seem to follow logically around one theme, digressing into tangential issues. However, it provided rare insight into an unfamiliar place and culture and is recommended for those unfamiliar with Albania. (Written as review for BookBrowse first impressions)

  16. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie Jane

    See more of my book reviews on my blog, Literary Flits I cannot truly imagine just how bewildering it must be to have been raised with one set of beliefs, ones which you wholeheartedly embraced and thought you understood, then, just as you were about to embark on your adult life, the society that underpinned those beliefs was abruptly ripped away. You discovered that your immediate family had hidden most of your history from you and your foundations weren't the solid rock you had previously relie See more of my book reviews on my blog, Literary Flits I cannot truly imagine just how bewildering it must be to have been raised with one set of beliefs, ones which you wholeheartedly embraced and thought you understood, then, just as you were about to embark on your adult life, the society that underpinned those beliefs was abruptly ripped away. You discovered that your immediate family had hidden most of your history from you and your foundations weren't the solid rock you had previously relied upon. This is Lea Ypi's early life and her book, Free, does a wonderful job of allowing readers insights into the nations that were socialist Albania, transitional Albania and, sadly, civil war-ridden Albania. I was reminded at times of Haya Leah Molnar's memoir, Under A Red Sky, by the way in which Lea Ypi's family kept the truth about themselves from their children which ultimately led to divisions with each generation having very different experiences, expectations and political philosophies. I found it interesting that Ypi is now professor of political theory at the London School of Economics as I could see her being drawn towards philosophical study towards the end of Free as she attempts to make sense of the chaos consuming her country. Free is a very readable memoir and one which explores and explains quite complex issues in an accessible way. I appreciated how being shown Lea's childhood solely from her younger perspective allowed me to also see why she was so convinced of the benefits of socialism. Her love of 'Uncle Enver' reflected what I learned through reading Enver Hoxha by Blendi Fevziu. There are hints from part-hidden parental conversations that perhaps not everything is as rosy and clear as her teacher, Leta, makes out, but no one can be openly honest and Lea doesn't yet know how many layers of secrets are concealed. I enjoyed Free as a coming-of-age story as well as an eloquent history of post-war Albania.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    Rating: 3.5 In December 1990, when the "Velvet Revolution" came to Albania (the last of the Stalinist socialist governments in Eastern Europe), Lea Ypi, now a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, was 11 years old. She experienced the transition from authoritarian socialism to a "western" multi-party democracy, complete with economic chaos which led to the Albanian Revolution:of 1997. On one level this book operates as a family history and memoir of the time period, ref Rating: 3.5 In December 1990, when the "Velvet Revolution" came to Albania (the last of the Stalinist socialist governments in Eastern Europe), Lea Ypi, now a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, was 11 years old. She experienced the transition from authoritarian socialism to a "western" multi-party democracy, complete with economic chaos which led to the Albanian Revolution:of 1997. On one level this book operates as a family history and memoir of the time period, reflecting on how changing conditions affected her family's life and her own experiences as a teenager. On another, more macro plane, Ypi explores the concept of "freedom" in all its complexity and its differing manifestations: freedom of religion, of movement, of thought, of speech. She argues that freedoms in one situation can become strictures in others, with a number of personally- experienced supporting examples. The book provided a useful first-hand look into a rapidly changing society in a time of great turmoil..

  18. 5 out of 5

    Gitu Sharma

    A wonderfully insightful memoir about the battle between socialism and democracy, family, relationships, truth and fear in 1990s Albania - Ypi has a writing style that is both incredibly personal and equally informative

  19. 5 out of 5

    Tomas Wallaert

    An overwelving story about the human side of system change. The experienced reality is far away from the textbook theory.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ferenc Laczo

    A fabulous read. Perhaps of interest: discussion with the author about the book at https://revdem.ceu.edu/2021/10/28/lea... A fabulous read. Perhaps of interest: discussion with the author about the book at https://revdem.ceu.edu/2021/10/28/lea...

  21. 5 out of 5

    LittleSophie

    Part memoir, part rumination on notions of freedom, this Ypi's debut is a resourceful chameleon of a book. Often funny, sometimes devastating, it is wise, humane and exacting. Part memoir, part rumination on notions of freedom, this Ypi's debut is a resourceful chameleon of a book. Often funny, sometimes devastating, it is wise, humane and exacting.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Tom Brookes

    An evocative, stimulating and fascinating personal history. This is wonderfully written and an enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Norton

    On the second last page of Lea Ypi’s Free: Coming of Age at the End of History she tells us that, originally, it was to be a ‘philosophical book about the overlapping ideas of freedom in the liberal and socialist traditions’. Much as we might expect from Ypi now, a professor of political theory at the LSE. In a sort-of way it is still that original book, converted to autobiography. It tells the story of Ypi living through her home country of Albania's transition from a deeply dysfunctional commun On the second last page of Lea Ypi’s Free: Coming of Age at the End of History she tells us that, originally, it was to be a ‘philosophical book about the overlapping ideas of freedom in the liberal and socialist traditions’. Much as we might expect from Ypi now, a professor of political theory at the LSE. In a sort-of way it is still that original book, converted to autobiography. It tells the story of Ypi living through her home country of Albania's transition from a deeply dysfunctional communist state to a deeply dysfunctional market economy. (In 1997, a terrible year for Albania that gets a chapter in Ypi’s book, I met an Albanian at a conference in Europe. I don’t recall the conference presentations, but I do remember him telling me that he and his wife only spoke English to their daughters, because their only hope was to migrate and they needed foreign language skills for that. So sad.) The first parts of Free, with the story told by Ypi as her eleven-year-old self, are funny and insightful. Seeing late-communist Albania through the naïve eyes of a child captures its strangeness without any adult need to denounce or defend. Some mysteries of her life are revealed as due to her ‘biography’, her descent from a pre-communist prime minister. Family references to relatives graduating from university turn out to be coded references to their release from jail. After the communist regime fell, their ‘biography’ no longer a constraint, Ypi’s parents became involved in politics. Her late father is portrayed sympathetically, struggling with pressure to implement shock therapy economic policies that left many people out of work. But Ypi’s still-alive mother is treated as an Albanian version of Ayn Rand, if not personally partly responsible for the disasters of post-communism at least an example of the mindset that caused them. Ypi’s mother in turn struggles to understand her daughter’s ‘Kantian Marxist’ politics (Kant being the liberal and Marx the socialist from the original book plan). It pains Ypi that her mother associates her ideas with ‘a system that destroyed so many lives in my family’. An anecdote about Ypi’s mother wearing glamorous Western nightwear she found at a market and thought was a dress to a meeting with a French women’s organisation made me smile, but is unlikely to improve mother-daughter relations. The later parts of the book, set in Albania’s traumatic post-communist period, aren’t as strong as the earlier sections, but Ypi is always readable. The early chapters are five stars, four for the book as a whole.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Eni Shehu

    This is a disgrace. You should be ashamed of all the lies and misinformation you have provided! As someone born and raised in Albania, I can say that this book is historical fiction at best. The writer writes lie after lie just to support her biased opinion and political view. I will try to write an in depth review once I review all the notes I made from reading this disgusting neo-communist propaganda paper served as a book.

  25. 5 out of 5

    ILIR

    Unfortunately this book in Albania was politisied quickly and not had the welcome I expected. I read Free in English and loved the "coke can" cover, however, the Albanian version has the cover changed with a toppled Enver Hoxha statue and a child pioneer above it.. the image put off many people in Albania as they are fed up with the "decommunisem" agenda after the 90. Many people were quick to point out that author is indeed the grandaughter of a well know fascist collaborator who organised the Unfortunately this book in Albania was politisied quickly and not had the welcome I expected. I read Free in English and loved the "coke can" cover, however, the Albanian version has the cover changed with a toppled Enver Hoxha statue and a child pioneer above it.. the image put off many people in Albania as they are fed up with the "decommunisem" agenda after the 90. Many people were quick to point out that author is indeed the grandaughter of a well know fascist collaborator who organised the handover of Albanian Kingdom to Italian fascist empire in 1939. During this time, Albania ceased to exist as an independent country and became an autonomous part of the Italian Fascist Empire. Others were "offended" by the author Marxist ideology and her questioning the "value of freedoom" in a democracy. Is sad as I really liked the book and I relate very much to her experience as a child during communism and the chaotic transition during the 90' which is yet to end in Albania. I just wish many of my Albanian's compatriots would actually bother reading this book.. it scares me to think that book will be more popular in UK then Albania.

  26. 4 out of 5

    James Lovedale

    Amazingly engrossing book. Part memoir, part political commentary. Extremely intellectually and politically engaging, well written, and provocative.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bagus

    My first book for 2022. “Biography” is something important to Lea Ypi’s family during the time she grew up in communist Albania. At the moment, we could see her “biography” as merely an information, a professor in political theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science who has written numerous publications in Marxism and critical theory. But during the time she grew up, there was much stuff in her family that does not have any direct answer, to which her family only referred to t My first book for 2022. “Biography” is something important to Lea Ypi’s family during the time she grew up in communist Albania. At the moment, we could see her “biography” as merely an information, a professor in political theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science who has written numerous publications in Marxism and critical theory. But during the time she grew up, there was much stuff in her family that does not have any direct answer, to which her family only referred to the information as “biography”. Her father cannot study maths at university because of “biography”. Their parents got married to each other because of “biography”. Later on, she would learn some facts only after communism collapsed in Albania in 1991, with some truths coming to the surface. People used disguised terms such as “got a degree” for being released from prison, or “doing research” for serving sentences inside prison, to protect themselves. Little Lea often got bullied by her peers at school for sharing the same surname with the quisling prime minister Xhafer Ypi, who transferred government authorities in Albania to the occupying Axis power, making Albania an Italian Protectorate during the Second World War. She had a hard time explaining “the Other Ypi” doesn’t have any family relation whatsoever to her. Yet the truth would come to the surface as Nini, her grandmother, told the whole story to her after the fall of communism that the former prime minister was indeed her great-grandfather, and her grandfather was “doing research” for 15 years only due to the fact of his blood relation to the prime minister despite the fact that he was against fascist belief. The concept of “guilty by association” was really close to the heart of Lea’s family. Echoing the title, the book provides an interesting debate on the concept of freedom. Life under communism is often portrayed as “unfree” with the absence of freedom of expression and freedom of movement. But to little Lea who only made sense of her world with the education she got under the communist rule, she was as free as she could be, feeling devoted to the ideas of Enver Hoxha, internalising Marxist concepts as part of her identity. In this regard, she was free, echoing German writer Jenny Erpenbeck in her memoir Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces in which she describes the concept of freedom for a child growing up in East Berlin. Jenny was also as free as she could be, seeing the backdrop of the Berlin Wall as the end of the world, yet she was able to grow up, experience happy and sad moments too in a socialist society just like a child grew up anywhere else. The parallel between Lea’s and Jenny’s stories is that they question the nature of “freedom” which appeared after the fall of communism. Freedom to travel, “But what if I don’t have money to travel?” Freedom of expression, “But what if nobody cares about my opinion?” Freedom to be what I want, “But what if I don’t really know what I want to be or need?” In this regard, it seems as though freedom is a relative conception being imposed by the winning side of history. And history in this matter is something debatable too. The book subtitle contains the phrase “the end of history”, which I take as a subtle reference to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, something which I think Lea Ypi is familiar with given her background as a professor in political theory. Francis Fukuyama opines in his book, that humanity has finally come to the “end of history” with the collapse of communism in 1991 and the victory of liberal democracy as a political system with fewer contradictions and could serve the desire of mankind. Yet in Albania, we witnessed a large conflict in 1997 in the form of the Albanian Civil War following the collapse of the democratic institutions to serve the needs of the Albanians. For Lea Ypi, it is sufficient to merely signify the year “1997” to mention the conflict which became one of the turning points of her life. Excerpts from the Civil War in this book is one of the most interesting parts of the book, with Lea Ypi citing her diary entries from that time in verbatim, providing readers with the exact mental states of the author at that particular period. This memoir is complementary with Polish writer Małgorzata Rejmer’s oral history Mud Sweeter Than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania, both books happened to be published in English in 2021 and provide voices to the Albanians who lived under communism. Thirty years after the “end of history”, both books are still relevant to discuss. Marxism as an idea lives on to the twenty-first century, and there are some parts of Marxist ideas that are still worth to be discussed and remains true to this age. However, there’s also the need to turn back and look at the experiences of people living in a society in which ideas become a way of life that defined their existence and the necessities of their sufferings due to those ideas.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Katy Wilson

    Free by Lea Ypi When I finished this book I immediately went online to find out more about the author and about Albania. I had been taken into another world, discovered a country and a history that was new to me. Yet, the experiences that are described are not only universal but incredibly relevant for the days that we are living through now. The story is of Lea herself, a young girl growing up in communist Albania. Her parents do their best to protect her from the incredibly complicated and dang Free by Lea Ypi When I finished this book I immediately went online to find out more about the author and about Albania. I had been taken into another world, discovered a country and a history that was new to me. Yet, the experiences that are described are not only universal but incredibly relevant for the days that we are living through now. The story is of Lea herself, a young girl growing up in communist Albania. Her parents do their best to protect her from the incredibly complicated and dangerous politics of the times and so, as many children would do in her place, she develops a deep love and loyalty to the state, to the Party and to it’s leader, ‘Uncle Enver’. This book takes you through the breakdown of this controlled and dominated society and shows how Lea's trust and the lives of those she loves are changed in radical and sometimes violent ways. There is a gradual awakening to the truth that always was there . A child, especially a child who wants so much to be good and to be a valuable citizen, of course has tried to fit in and to be wholehearted in her support for the regime. Yet what happens when this child matures and the society she has trusted slowly reveals its shadow face. If parents try to protect their children, this can involve deceit and secrecy and even lies. Yet to be open and honest can put their children in danger. What an impossible narrow and dangerous road that is to walk! The basic freedoms that we value of speech, of beliefs, of friendship with whom we chose cannot be fully lived in a society that is based on dominance and fear. ‘Not only did my questions about the country go unanswered; I now also wondered about what kind of family I had been born into.” I think Lea Ypi does an incredible job of portraying the interior life of a child and the gradual awakening she experiences as both her outer and her inner worlds transform. And even when an abusive and tyrannical society breaks down, there are losses to grieve. Nothing is black and white – humans have complex and muti-layered experiences and I think this book depicts this with great art and sensitivity. I was immersed in Lea’s world and even though it was a country and a history that I have not experienced I felt utterly involved as so much is there that reflects our own situation even when we feel we are ‘free’. Freedom can be under-valued until it is taken away. And as the author says, there can be even in democracies, ‘a violence that for the most part remains an abstract threat only to materialise when the powerful risk losing their privileges’. If you cannot question and challenge the status quo, then freedom has already flown. Certainties laid down from above may seem reassuring but life is not certainty - it has nuance and must be questioned even when this brings discomfort. “Truth was always there, waiting to be discovered, if only I knew where to look”

  29. 5 out of 5

    Eddie Bennett

    Free, written by Lea Ypi is a harrowing coming of age tale about the fall of socialism during the late 1980's to the early 1990's in Albania from the subjective vantage point of the narrator. The fall of socialism was, for a lot of people the end of decades of oppression and suppression at the hands of the government they relied on. We are introduced to the narrator through a weaving of secrets. These secrets were not specific to the personal challenges of family life and legacy but also in the Free, written by Lea Ypi is a harrowing coming of age tale about the fall of socialism during the late 1980's to the early 1990's in Albania from the subjective vantage point of the narrator. The fall of socialism was, for a lot of people the end of decades of oppression and suppression at the hands of the government they relied on. We are introduced to the narrator through a weaving of secrets. These secrets were not specific to the personal challenges of family life and legacy but also in the greater expanse of the societal fishbowl they lived in. Readers are invited to experience the narrators coming of age tale at a place and time in history with drastic changes and enormous challenges. The Albanian people wanted real freedom and the recognition of political pluralism. "After centuries of servitude under the Ottoman Empire and decades of struggle against the great powers who wanted to partition the country". The strengths of the narrative relied on the connections that it had to the events as they happened. Realizations were also a common theme. In the wake of the changing social landscape of Albania, the narrator experiences an internal culture shock in accepting that the ideals that she held in high regard were built on the oppression of her people and the suppression of their dissent. Demonstrations became protests and dissent became difference of opinion as the population was given the opportunity to express their distrust and disapproval of the hardships they experienced at the hands of their government. One of the instances where ideals clashed and the narrators view of society began to broaden is when she was inadvertently caught up in a protest. Running away from the police officers who were tasked with disbursing the protestors, the narrator stopped at a statue of Stalin, a statue that she found solace in before that moment. As she clung to the statue there was an awareness that the society that she lived in was just as hollow as the statue that she clung to. There is a deep appreciation for this narrative because of its ability to humanize through the narrators subjective experience. We are able to feel what the narrator feels and experience their lives before and after the fall of socialism.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Melanie Fleming

    This is a compelling novel in which the author recounts her childhood and maturity in Albania in the late 1980s and extending into the late 1990s when there was an extreme change in Albania's political landscape. The regime changed from communism under the leadership of politician, Enver Hoxha (referred to as Uncle Enver), to a parliamentary republic. It was during this period that the author experienced an ideological maturity about the concept of freedom. Her story poignantly begins when she is This is a compelling novel in which the author recounts her childhood and maturity in Albania in the late 1980s and extending into the late 1990s when there was an extreme change in Albania's political landscape. The regime changed from communism under the leadership of politician, Enver Hoxha (referred to as Uncle Enver), to a parliamentary republic. It was during this period that the author experienced an ideological maturity about the concept of freedom. Her story poignantly begins when she is a young girl clutching a decapitated statue of Stalin because she learned in school that he was the man who changed the world. She runs to this statue to seek refuge from protestors (her father called them hooligans) who are clamoring for freedom and democracy. That is what triggers her to question the concept of freedom. As the author states later in the novel: "That is the day that I lost my childhood innocence." Her family acts and describes their family history in terms of normalcy; however, she later learns they deceived her. The universities they attended were a ruse for prisons/deportation sites, curriculums were a variety of criminal offenses, and a degree of completion was the end of a prison sentence. The ultimate deception was that her family heritage included a Populist Part Prime Minister she detested. Her teenage years were also tumultuous because Albania's road to democracy required multiple transitions- political, economic, social, and European integration. The environment was chaotic with violent protests, political corruption, pyramid schemes and widespread bankruptcies which sparked the Albanian Civil War of 1997. This period also resulted in significant ideological shifts in her parents and other Albanians. This book is a beautifully written memoir reflecting not only the author's emotions but the formation of her strong political beliefs. It is well suited to someone knowledgeable in political science or who is interested in nonfiction with historical and philosophical depth. While I was unfamiliar with this topical area, it expanded my perspective on the impacts of changing political conditions on ideological beliefs. At the novel's conclusion, it caused me to contemplate - Is freedom a concept defined in the eye of the beholder?

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