To The Lake

Lake Ohrid is one of those places of the earth that make you feel as if something fateful awaits you.

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The Highland Book Prize, longlisted

“This heartfelt exploration of the intersections between geography, history, and identity mesmerizes.”— Publishers Weekly USA

“In her most recent book, the acclaimed Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, Kassabova wrote that a border is a place where “You call into the chasm where one side is sunny, the other in darkness, and the echo multiplies your wish, distorts your voice, takes it away to a distant land where you might have been once.” To the Lake considers more complex distortions of self, as Kassabova reveals the stories and shadows of Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, two ancient lakes in Macedonia and Albania. Kassabova has said that she feels as if her new book has “taken a lifetime,” and in some ways, it has – as the book traces her maternal line in a land that predates us all.” The Millions Most Anticipated Books of 2020

BBC Book of the Week, 17-21 February 2020

‘…Spellbinding. Lake Ohrid is deep and swimming with reflections and so is Kassabova’s lovely book, the weave of personal memoir, cultural history and physical geography that she does with peerless vividness, humane sympathy and the kind of ironic bite that that other cleareyed traveller Laurence Sterne would have appreciated.’ Simon Schama’s Financial Times Summer Books of 2020: critic’s picks

‘Kapka Kassabova has returned with another hoard of extraordinary lives, tales of survival, dark comedy and horror. Humanity glitters under her gaze in all its facets. Her prose is spectacularly good and her storytelling is a joy.’ Philip Marsden

‘Neatly adhering to rules of three, Kassabova’s well-researched and personal book contains three strands: vivid travelogue, ancestral memoir and historical analysis… Each of the lyrical chapters contains lucid stories of the shores’ inhabitants, whose tales of persecution and resistance resemble those of her own family. On these ancestral elements, Kassabova is excellent, balancing reverence and a sincere reckoning with the past…To the Lake is peopled by memorable characters… She presents the region as containing multitudes of human experience, stories of great suffering and defiance, cruelty and comedy. If disbelief remains, it’s a result of too much reality, not fantasy.’  The New Statesman

‘Kassabova is a poet, which comes across in her sensuous relationship with the world around her… Her narrative glides through different locations, time periods and perspectives so subtly that you don’t quite realise the full scope of its ambition until it’s over. You could open this book at any page and immediately get sucked into the beauty of her writing.’ Open Democracy

‘To the Lake’s objective is … reconciliation, a quest for spiritual wholeness. “Our tragedy,” she writes in the closing paragraphs, “is fragmentation.” The narrative performs another kind of reconciliation, too… It was partly the compound facets of Border that accounted for its miraculous glimmer. To the Lake is more languid and more patient, as fluid and inexorable as the underground watercourses that connect the two lakes. The book’s achievement, likewise, is to reconcile, thrillingly, what those twin bodies of water represent to Kassabova: the unconscious and the conscious; the darkness of history and the radiance of life and love.” The Guardian

‘Extraordinarily haunting… It is to Kassabova’s credit that far from being heavy or depressing, her book is a delight, exquisitely written and brimming with compassion… [a] wonderful book.’ The Sunday Times

‘Kassabova’s prose is enchanting and challenging, poetic and stark all at once. By telling the story of her family through the history of the landscape that has shaped them, she makes the particular universal and invites her reader to ponder the significance of memory, identity and place in the broader context of human existence.’ Irish Times

‘Strikes the perfect balance in exposing how the wheel of history… crushes great human potential but is not always able to extinguish it.” Misha Glenny, The Times Literary Supplement

‘Kassabova’s calling as a poet is evident in short turns of phrase dense with meaning, and in her propensity to feel the weight of all symbols […]. Her message will resonate with all readers who have sought to connect with their ancestors […] To the Lake is an exquisitely written rallying cry to embrace the notion that the people of the Balkans — and indeed humanity as a whole — have more in common than what divides them.’ The Financial Times

‘Kassabova makes intimate the grand abstractions of Balkan history… She captures [a] profound antiquity in an image of enchanting beauty, of the two lakes seen from above as ‘eyes in an ancient face’, suggesting the glimpses the lakes offer into a long-submerged past…. Kassabova purports to carry you To The Lake, but penetrates much, much deeper into the seismic psyche of the Balkans.’ The Times

‘The otherworldly lakes represent something complete and redemptive… Where the Balkans are so frequently made an archetype of easy fragmentation…  the lakes create “an exhilaration of wholeness”… The compelling blend of memoir, history and travelogue into which these ideas are turned is a poignant, powerful argument to overcome our obsession with difference. The book’s architecture seamlessly weaves its multiple perspectives…Together, they form a haunting and elegant whole with a vehement message at its core: “Lake and mountain were one. The world, when left alone, was one.” The Arts Desk

‘It is impossible to study the maps in Kapka Kassabova’s blend of memoir, political and cultural history without feeling [the lakes’] lure…Lyrical prose produces startlingly clear images.’ Prospect Magazine

‘Enlightening, surprising and elegiac… very much in the vein of Sebald… interspersed with poetry and snippets of novels from the region, and it is a joy to read a work where you actually learn something… a very elegantly written book. A lot of [it] is concerned with the psychic – the psychotic – nature of despotism…. The actual descriptions of the lakes are written with a filigree grace, unostentatious … with a sharp eye for telling detail… I always like books that I leave feeling bigger on the inside, and Kassabova certainly achieves that.’ Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

‘A book that unravels the mysteries of our inner and outer landscapes.’ The Scotland Herald

‘In these human stories, from her own family and from complete strangers of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, the random and relentless antagonism of nation-state borders is shown up to full effect. Perhaps it’s best to ignore the borders imposed by nation states in favour of the kind of localism described in To The Lake... Kassabova coins the term Ohridian to describe the setting of her wonderful book, an idea, an infusion, a collection of people forged by memory and lived experience rather than slide rule and dividers. This is a book that’s one in the eye for the kind of blinkered nationalists who seized the national discourse and gave us the referendum result of 2016. It’s taken a global pandemic to show us the futility of artificial borders.’ Charlie Connelly, The New European

‘Kassabova is able to turn generations of vast political and social upheaval into an intimate portrait of loss.’ Book of the Month, Wanderlust

‘Kassabova has a remarkable talent for finding stories and the people who harbour them.’ Geographical Magazine

Book cover photography by Anthony Georgieff