Years ago, a book group in Mansfield introduced me to the work of the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, still the best known Albanian writer, who writes a foreword to this novel by what must be one of the few female Albanian writers published in English. Dones covers some of the same ground as Kadare, the rigid behaviour codes in the north of the country – the Kanun. In this book the code means that the female Hana Dona takes over her late uncle’s farm but she has to dress as a man, drink and smoke like a man, act in every way as a man – but must remain a virgin, a sworn virgin, to uphold the honour of the family as she is the only person left to run the place. To do this she gives up her sophisicated life in Tirana to become Mark. Her becoming a man is celebrated in her village of 208 souls, and she is honoured for so doing, no longer treated as second class, the usual female role.
Fourteen years later – after the downfall of Enver Hoxha (in a nice touch her uncle’s goat was secretly called Enver) she joins her cousin in America, one of the million Albanians who left the country in search of a better life and, after some hesitation, Hana gives up her life as a man. The book switches between the two eras. In due course she settles, becomes independent and grapples with the issue of sex.
Having had recent discussions with some people about our “binary” culture, this novel was timely. People like Hana/Mark did exist in Albania and a film is planned. The author interviewed many of these (wo)men including one who did migrate to America.
The book itself is strongest in its Albanian chapters. Life in America was not so believable, not least when Hana became a bookseller and took a prospective boyfriend out for a posh meal. Booksellers taking someone out for a posh meal? No chance. But while Hana’s wrestling with sexuality is not an issue, she was always a woman in man’s clothes and adopted behaviour, her attempts to deal with sex itself did not ring true. The translation could have done with a polish at times, occasionally being a little cliched in its language. Nevertheless the novel is an interesting read. But you will have to wait – the book is not published until 4 May.