The Secret of Karabakh had a very intriguing blurb and a powerful opening prologue that drew me in. The horrifying image of a child killed by soldiers while trying to flee a war had a deep resonance, due to reports of such atrocities coming out of Ukraine every day. The way the author describes the child’s ‘pink woolen scarf decorated with chocolate-brown rabbits and butter-yellow ducklings’ contrasts the innocence and softness of the child with the rocky terrain, the gunshots and the lack of mercy shown. It’s a vivid and terrible scene that stays with you throughout.
Then we meet Alana Fulton a committed and gifted student of archaeology completing her PhD at Cambridge University. Her background is surprisingly privileged and we see her meeting her mother at the Dorchester Hotel in London. Her parents find it difficult to understand her fervour for her studies when she could have had all the opportunities their wealth offered her. There’s even a film star boyfriend who she’s keeping at bay with her devotion to study, much to her mother’s confusion. Yet this tea with her mother marks the day her life turns upside down. First she notices a strange man staring intently at her on the street and to avoid him she jumps into a cab for Kings Cross station. Her relief as the doors of her train close and they set off for Cambridge, is wiped out when she sees the same man running down the platform after the train. Her fear is compounded when she reaches her university rooms. Usually her college is the place where she finds calm and feels most like the real her, but when she finds her room wrecked she is shaken. Nothing seems missing at first, and it’s only after the police have gone and Alana starts to tidy that she realises her hair brush and toothbrush are missing. The police start investigating, but there are two questions at the forefront of her mind: who was the man asking for her at the porter’s gate? Who sent the anonymous note, telling her she’s not who she thinks she is and warning her she’s in danger?
Alana isn’t sure who she can trust and she’s shocked to find out the identity of the man asking for her at university. Someone she knows well is now the focus of the police. These early sections didn’t gel with me at first, because I didn’t connect with Alana. Despite that I thought the author had paced the action and revelations very well. As Alana and her boyfriend go on the run, there was a very spy film feel to the action, at they take a private jet to Switzerland. The pace doesn’t let up as they are followed by foreign attackers and if this were a movie, Alana would definitely be the star. She doesn’t come across as a damsel in distress type and seems completely capable of rescuing herself. This makes it even more ironic when we find out her boyfriend has accepted payment in diamonds for keeping her safe. But who has made the payment and which side of this unknown conflict are they on? I was most interested in the psychological journey of Alana, arising from her confusion about the message questioning her identity. Like many people she has memories of childhood, but if she tries to think back to her pre-school years it’s not just hazy, there’s a great big blank. Underneath that blackness is an emotion, a combination of ‘bewilderment and simmering fear’ that she can trace throughout her early school years, but gradually fritters away until she hits adolescence, when it’s gone. This is a raw emotion, the result of a base or primal fear, and this kept me invested in the story, because I really wanted to know where that feeling was from.
In-between the action are personal stories from a war I knew nothing about, the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This is a real life border conflict, but when we look deeper it’s not just about territory, but natural resources and cultural histories too. The conflict has been ongoing since the 1980s, with various flares into full scale war over the years and has only recently been more settled, but with only some of the issues resolved. It was the dissolution of the Soviet Union that sparked rising ethnic tensions between Armenian and Azerbaijani people especially in the Nagorno-Karabakh region – an enclave of South-West Azerbaijan with majority ethnic Armenian people. It seemed clear that this area was linked to Alana, but how?
From Switzerland onwards these questions are answered in a story filled with action and discovery for Alana, and I found this part of the book much more gripping and memorable. I was interested in how Alana copes with these revelations mentally, as her past and present collide. Those vague emotional memories from childhood come to the fore again as she learns the truth of who she is. More terrifying and muddled childhood experiences start to emerge and Alana will have to find reserves of determination and courage to piece everything together. I thought it was great that those qualities Alana’s parents really didn’t understand, came from this history she knew nothing about. It was also interesting how the author showed our emotional memories as stronger and longer lasting – it’s why sometimes a piece of music makes us feel a certain way, but we don’t know why. Alana’s memory still carried emotional trauma, despite her not remembering the details or the place. I thought the author’s use of research really added to the story and helped my understanding of the complex history of the region. I finished the book satisfied with the story, but wanting to know more about Nagorno-Karabakh and other areas left in difficulties as the Soviet Union disbanded. This was a clever mix of historical fiction and action thriller, with an incredibly strong sense of place.
Meet The Author
Fidan Bagirova is a writer, sculptor and multimedia artist. She was born in Geneva, to parents from Azerbaijan. They, like hundreds of thousands of others, lost everything during the Armenian invasion described in The Secret of Karabakh, and for Fidan, writing this novel has been a way of expressing her longing for the Azerbaijani people’s identity and stolen heritage.