With November 2019 marking 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the start of Eastern Europe’s re-integration with the rest of the continent, the years immediately following can be hard to remember. Berliners’ euphoria aside, the early 1990s were rife with challenges, from Ceausescu’s bloody downfall in Romania to the Balkan wars amid the former Yugoslavia’s collapse. It is in that transformative, uncertain context that John Righten builds up his contemporary historical novel, HEARTBREAK: The Lenka Trilogy Part 1.
The main protagonist is the titular Lenka, a young woman teaching at and helping to run an Irish orphanage with family members both biological and chosen. She is smart, funny, kind, with an undefinable toughness – and throughout the book, these qualities come into sharper relief. Once the Iron Curtain is drawn back, Lenka is pulled into a new world, helping to deliver aid to the former Communist bloc. The journey is presaged (aptly) like a Wild West piece, with real risks. Paying bribes, outwitting would-be thieves or killers, and moments of heartbreaking humanity overlap in unexpected ways. The convoy is led by a humanitarian crew known simply as the Rogues. It’s what they do and they do it well – despite volatile moods and off-color humor. Witnessing Lenka’s integration with these fascinating, well-realized characters gelled in a compelling way. There are exceptions, though, which may grate on readers. While the protagonists are complex and feel grounded, antagonists (with one potential, notable exception) often can be spotted from a mile away. They lack the same depth, with less or little moral ambiguity. Their motivations might be built on in later entries in THE LENKA TRILOGY, but here, they comprise the weaker forms of characterization.
The broader issue concerns the same backdrop introduced above – the geopolitics of 1990s Europe. As a contemporary history novel, it’s daring to set a piece in an epoch well within lived memory. Sometimes these issues are merely nitpicky facts (the sunrise time in Sopron, Hungary, can be Googled; it’s a couple hours earlier than in the text). At other times, however, they become more substantial. In particular, there’s the overarching conflict between protagonists and antagonists, at least insofar as it’s established in HEARTBREAK’s first installment. The drama can feel pulled from James Bond or Ethan Matthew Hunt. That can work—and more often than not, it does—but it’s a delicate matter when real-world crimes like systemic child abuse in the former Communist states or mass murder in the Balkans are subsumed within the characters’ personal stakes. It robs the largely anonymous sufferers of their agency, and their experiences of historical accuracy, in ways that can be frustrating. Those issues aside, HEARTBREAK’s first entry will leave many readers eager to figure out all the remaining mysteries throughout the trilogy’s later installments.
John Righten’s excellently drawn lead characters and spot-on tone make HEARTBREAK, part one of THE LENKA TRILOGY, instantly absorbing and does what every good series starter must–hooks the reader quickly, making them eager to know what comes next.
~Andy Carr for IndieReader