Book Review - Kinderland

In Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, children are often abandoned by parents seeking jobs elsewhere. In 2020, according to a recent report from Unicef (the United Nations Children’s Fund), about 34,000 young Moldovans were living apart from their parents; many were left to the care of extended families. 

Liliana Corobca, who was born in Moldova, explores this shocking phenomenon in Kinderland, originally published in 2013. A later novel, The Censor’s Notebook, which focused on the repression of free expression during Nicolae CeauČ™escu’s authoritarian regime, won the Oxford-Weidenfeld translation prize when it was translated into English in 2022 by Monica Cure. Her other works include Negrissimo (2003), A Year in Paradise (2005) and The Old Maids’ Empire (2015). 

Corobca reunites with Cure for this poignant tale about children left to fend for themselves while their parents make “long money” abroad. Twelve-year-old Cristina cares for her two brothers, six-year-old Dan and three-year old Marcel. Their small farm in a nameless Moldovan village no longer provides a livelihood, so their mother looks after other people’s kids in Italy, while their father works in Siberia.

The parents phone and send money for food when they can, and return briefly in the summer. Meanwhile, Cristina keeps the house clean and feeds her brothers and their animals — chickens, a dog, a cat and a pig — while relatives and friends occasionally visit with food. 

Kinderland opens with a scene in which a tick is stuck to Dan’s stomach. Cristina, terrified by his shrieks, has to find adult help: “Normally, the howls would have brought out, if not half the village, at least the entire neighbourhood on the outskirts of the village, but now, no one came. She could’ve taken out the tick, but what if the head got stuck there and it grew another body that was even bigger . . . ” In the end, a stranger stops by their village well and is able to help. It is just one of many crises she endures. 

As Cristina roams the village streets, she composes letters to her mother full of anecdotes about their lives and neighbours, interwoven with folklore she’s learnt from a friend — such as breaking an egg and leaving its yolk in the middle of a crossroads to fulfil a wish, or describing the spirit of a dead dog inhabiting the boy who had tortured it. 

Through her reveries, crucial information about family dynamics is revealed. “Mom only wanted two children,” she remembers at one point. “Dad wanted Marcel. She said: We barely have enough food for these two. Dad said, let there be another kid. I’ll go to Yakutiya, to work and make some money, and we’ll have enough for the kids!” 

Another time, she recalls a time long ago when their parents lived at home: “Mom would work in the mornings, when I’d wake up she’d be cooking, Dad would watch TV.” Now, Cristina observes drily, when they return they are always fighting: “You’re the perfect married couple, with three kids, only when you’re on different continents.” 

Described by Dan as his “scrappy sister”, Cristina swings between enjoying her independence and yearning for parental guidance. Marcel seems to take their parents’ absence harder: he makes a puppet father by sticking a pillow inside his dad’s old coat, and even finds comfort by imagining his father hitting him with a stick. He also cries for days at a time: “It’s as if he is singing . . . As if he were one of those women hired to wail at funerals. He raises his voice, he lowers his voice. When his cries are high-pitched, they’re like a goat’s, when his cries are lower, in a deep voice, they’re like those of a spoiled young ewe or ram that wants milk after it’s already been weaned.”

Corobca creates a vivid portrait of rural life, where cruelty to animals and children is common. Their home becomes “a shelter for kids whose parent beats them. Everyone knows we’re home alone, because we’re almost never visited by an old person, I mean an adult. If only the kids came full, not hungry, because they eat up all our food.” This harshness is alleviated by the solace Cristina finds in nature: “I felt the earth was a gentle, loving animal, that caresses me with everything it has, that gives me good things and loves me like a grandparent or mother hugging her child.” 

A sympathetic narrator, Cristina has a distinctive voice — sometimes knowing, at other times acutely vulnerable — with her shifts in tone adroitly translated by Cure. Kinderland is a heartbreaking account of a childhood abruptly curtailed.

Originally published by the Financial Times