I’ve just finished Justin Petrone’s My Estonia. It’s an enjoyable read, and not quite what I expected.
Justin is probably the most consistently readable and interesting blogger in the Baltic states, but his book shows he is also a talented and endearingly honest writer.
The book covers Justin’s first encounters with Estonia and early years as a sometime-illegal resident of the country.
Early chapters deal with his initial encounter with Epp, his future wife, on a trip to Finland for budding foreign correspondents. Though necessary to set up what follows, I feel this is the weakest part of the book. There are broad hints that Justin has been suffering from depression of some sort, but not really enough to make it clear what frame of mind he is in. Other characters flit in and out too quickly and with too little differentiation and a brief three-week stay in London is slightly overplayed as a sort of vie Boheme in miniature.
But once Justin actually sets foot in Estonia the book begins. It may be an account of a man lacking confidence at first, but Justin’s writing immediately gains confidence. It’s clever the way he communicates bewilderment and frustration in such a measured and authoritative way. One senses that whatever Justin was looking for (my own opinion would be a place to put his overflowing love) he found it in Estonia and in Epp.
Yet despite the amount of text dedicated to Epp (some commentators have suggsted the book should really be called My Epp, and they have a point), she remains the most elusive figure in the book. The terms used to describe her in Justin’s conversational, Kerouac-influenced style (“crazy”, etc) simply don’t offer enough information as to her motivations and reasoning. But with a second volume promised it’s likely Epp’s evolution will continue.
What’s not in doubt is that Justin and Epp come as close to the definition of star-crossed lovers as is possible without descending into sentimentality. Indeed Justin’s honesty about his own feelings and frequent insecurities makes for some of the strongest passages.
His guilt and guilty pleasure noticing that he finds other women attractive despite his devotion to Epp is a particularly honest observation. The terrified euphoria of learning he is to become father and subsequent fear that he will be a bad one will be familiar to any man who has ever heard the words: “We’re having a baby.”
In another well-told episode he and Epp have a rare quarrel, to which Justin responds by throwing his bag at the nearest available wall. I would very much like to see this adopted worldwide as a gesture of overwhelming, inexpressible frustration.
If Epp remains enigmatic, the incidental characters including mischievous niece Simona, “family drunk” Toivo, Toomas the magician and Vaiko the rock star are deftly described once Justin’s Estonian Odyssey is underway. And despite occasional suggestions that Justin may lapse into Bill Bryson territory and start describing family members as caricatures (“crazy” once again) his honesty stops him doing so. While Justin’s new family may seem a little eccentric to the sort of reader who would find a dry toilet shocking, they seem pretty typical of this part of the world to me.
My Estonia also makes an interesting companion piece to Vello Vikerkaar’s recently-published Inherit The Family. Whereas Vello’s stance is that of an Estonian who should fit in but somehow never seems to quite do so, Justin’s is conversely that of a foreigner who shouldn’t fit in at all but somehow does.
My Estonia also forms one of a series of “My…” books published by Justin and Epp’s company Petrone Print. Concentrating on personal impressions of various countries by mainly Estonian writers, they should also be worth investigating to get a view away from the “party line” provided by Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and the like.
My Estonia is available to order from Amazon.