Catherine, the Great and the Small
By Olja Knežević
Translated by Paula Gordon & Ellen Elias-Bursac
Catherine's trajectory in life is accompanied by failures in love, family traumas and an incredible romance with the handsome Siniša. The novel takes us through turbulent times in the Balkan region, from the eighties to the present day, portraying growing up in the twilight of Tito's Yugoslavia, and giving intimate insights into all that happened to the region after that.
Carefully crafted characters and masterful, dynamic storytelling place Catherine the Great and the Small in the company of the very best novels, which speak about the reality of their geographic setting and are remembered for their convincing, strong, maladjusted characters. Catherine is certainly one of them: a powerful female voice seeking her place within her family, among friends, in the cities she lives in, and constructing her unique identity as a daughter, granddaughter, friend, mistress, wife and mother.
"...a delightful thing: part social commentary, part matriarchal epic, part comedy, and part tragedy — not necessarily equally weighted. Stunning, humorous, tragic, but always true, the novel features three generations of characters, most of them female, all from small-town Europe. But the author’s real triumph is what she leaves out. Catherine, the eponymous Russian empress, is an allusion that only makes sense after reading the book. The period and locations in which the story is set include a number of very bloody and notorious incidents, but Knežević, thankfully, makes almost no mention of military matters. The novel is ultimately not about war; it’s about human fragility, peace, growth, life, death, and everything else in the narrator Catherine’s life."
"The splendid language of this novel is skilfully and vividly translated, and the narrative is compelling. What is also striking is the portrayal of the characters with all their flaws and foibles (and who gain our sympathy perhaps particularly because of them). This inclusiveness of vision towards both characters and places – without judgement, rejecting nothing – is a special quality. It is the viewpoint of our greatest organ of perception, the heart, a territory that Olja Knežević knows well and has made her own."
Morelle Smith, Scottish Review
"Catherine the Great and the Small, Olja Knežević’s fourth book and first to be translated into English, is a clinic in the art of contradiction. As its title suggests, it is a novel concerned with resisting the rigid binaries of selfhood, one which reaches for nuance, plurality, “a feeling of and”, as American author Maggie Nelson would assert. As Katarina, the narrator, traces her childhood from 1970s Yugoslavia to modern day Britain, we witness a life struggling to resist definition, to remain elusive, to find a certain private clarity in the confusion of exile and grief."
Matt Janney, The Calvert Journal
"This is not a they lived happily ever after novel, not least because they lived happily ever after all too often does not happen in the real world. Catherine struggles, she falls, she fails, she picks herself up, she carries on, for herself and those she loves, and, somehow, she does not get the perfect situation but makes an accommodation with those around her, keeps her head help up high and marches on. We can only wish her well.”
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