Reviews of Free by Lea Ypi


A Child and a Country at the End of History

by Lea Ypi

Free by Lea Ypi X
Free by Lea Ypi
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  • Published:
    Jan 2022, 256 pages


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Book Summary

A reflection on "freedom" in a dramatic, beautifully written memoir of the end of Communism in the Balkans. Longlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction.

Lea Ypi grew up in the last Stalinist country in Europe: Albania, a place of queuing and scarcity, of political executions and secret police. While family members disappeared to what she was told were "universities" from which few "graduated," she swore loyalty to the Party. In her eyes, people were equal, neighbors helped each other, and children were expected to build a better world.

Then the statues of Stalin and Hoxha were toppled. Almost overnight, people could vote and worship freely, and invest in hopes of striking it rich. But factories shut, jobs disappeared, and thousands fled to Italy, only to be sent back. Pyramid schemes bankrupted the country, leading to violence. One generation's dreams became another's disillusionment. As her own family's secrets were revealed, Ypi found herself questioning what "freedom" really means. With acute insight and wit, Ypi traces the perils of ideology, and what people need to flourish.


I still associate all our efforts to learn from the outside world with Dajti, the name of the isolated mountain range that surrounded our capital and dominated its landscape as if it had captured it and was holding it hostage. Dajti was physically remote but always with us. I never visited it. I still don't know what "receiving from Dajti" meant—who received what, from whom, or how. I suspect there was a satellite or TV receiver up there. Dajti was in every house, in every conversation, in everyone's thoughts. "I saw it last night through Dajti" meant: "I was alive" or "I broke a law" or "I was thinking." For five minutes. For an hour. For a whole day. For however long Dajti would be there.

When my father became frustrated with the programmes on Albanian television he would declare, "I am going to see if we can get Dajti." He would then climb up onto the roof, twist our antenna this way and that, and shout through the window, "How is it now, is it better?" ...

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I highly recommend this book. Lea Ypi's personal story of coming of age illuminated the history, politics and culture of Albania. I learned something on every page (Lucy S). I think this would be an excellent choice for a book group, allowing discussions about how the adults in her life protected her by not telling her the truth about the system under which they lived, but also exploring the ways in which political philosophies are distorted by those who claim to be creating a society based on them (Rosemary C)..continued

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(Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

Media Reviews

The New York Times
Ypi is a beautiful writer and a serious political thinker, and in just a couple hundred readable pages, she takes turns between being bitingly, if darkly, funny (she skewers Stalinism and the World Bank with equal deadpan) and truly profound...Free is meant to inspire.

Washington Post
Free is the most probing memoir yet produced of the undefined 'transition' period after European communism. But it is more profoundly a primer on how to live when old verities turn to dust. Ypi has written a brilliant personal history of disorientation, of what happens when the guardrails of everyday life — a family's past, the signposts of success, the markers of a normal future — suddenly fall away.

Sunday Times (UK)
Ypi weaves magic in this book: I was entranced from beginning to end.

The Guardian (UK)
Utterly engrossing ... Ypi's memoir is brilliantly observed, politically nuanced and - best of all - funny.

The New Statesman (UK)
Ypi's deliciously smart memoir of her Albanian girlhood at the end of the Cold War is a brilliant disquisition on the meanings of freedom - its lures, false hopes, disappointments and possibilities - in our time.

Times Literary Supplement
A uniquely engaging and illuminating account of a young life during a period of intense turmoil.

Library Journal (starred review)
This astonishing memoir is a lively and subtle reflection on the relation between personal and political, in a world where neither old nor new fit without personal loss. Ypi's writing sets itself apart.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This vivid rendering of life amid cultural collapse is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Kirkus Reviews
A poignant, humorous memoir about growing up during the decline and fall of the Iron Curtain.

Author Blurb Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran
Illuminating and subversive, Free asks us to consider what happens to our ideals when they come into contact with imperfect places and people and what can be salvaged from the wreckage of the past.

Author Blurb David Runciman, author of How Democracy Ends
This extraordinary coming-of-age story is like an Albanian Educated, but it is so much more than that.

Author Blurb Ivan Krastev, author of The Light that Failed
Free is one of those very rare books that shows how history shapes people's lives and their politics. Lea Ypi is such a brilliant, powerful writer that her story becomes your story.

Author Blurb Vivian Gornick, author of The Odd Woman and the City
I haven't in many years read a memoir from this part of the world as warmly inviting as this one. Written by an intellectual with story-telling gifts, Free makes life on the ground in modern day Albania vivid and immediate: no mean accomplishment.

Reader Reviews

Tonyia Robinson

Romania and Cold War from a child / family perspective
I was given this book to read and comment before from book browser but did not get a chance to read/comment on the book, due to illness (Covid/MS). I enjoyed this book greatly and others should read this book. From a child's/family's perspective of ...   Read More
Adrian S.

“Free” - A story that was waiting to be told
Lea Ypi's “Free” is a story that was waiting to be told, a riveting memoir of a childhood abruptly severed into “before” and “after.” Thirty years on, reconciling those shattered fragments remains elusively hard for many of us who came of age in the ...   Read More
Peggy K. (Westminster, CO)

A Peek Behind Iron Curtains
I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir of Lea Ypi's life under socialism and communism in Albania. Her story is unusual in that, as a child, she was very much a believer in "the Party," and found her parents and extended relatives rather lukewarm about it....   Read More
Mel F. (Auburn, MA)

Free-a memoir of growing up in Albania during a changing political landscape and impacts on ideological beliefs
This is a compelling novel in which the author recounts her childhood and maturity in Albania in the late 1980s and extending into the late 1990s when there was an extreme change in Albania's political landscape. The regime changed from communism ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Albania, Then and Now

Map of AlbaniaLea Ypi's memoir Free charts the author's coming of age in a family of dissidents in Albania in the 1980s and '90s, before and after the fall of communism. Albania is located in southern Europe in the Balkan Peninsula, with the Adriatic Sea on its western border and Greece, North Macedonia and Kosovo to the east. The earliest recorded inhabitants of the area were known as the Illyrians, one of three core population groups in the region, the others being the Thracians and Greeks. Along with the rest of the Balkans, the area that is now Albania was conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century BCE, and over the following 2,200 or so years, it saw multiple empires come and go, including the Ottoman Empire which controlled the region from the 15th...

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