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"Hard by a great forest dwelt a poor woodcutter with his wife and two children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel..."

In the Republic of Georgia, on the eve of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Irakli also lives by a great forest, with wife Eka and two sons, the younger of whom, called Saba, narrates this debut novel by Leo Vardiashvili. Irakli's lot is certainly hard, and in the midst of the post-Soviet civil war he flees to England with his children, leaving Eka behind. Despite desperate efforts to get Eka out, he fails, she eventually dies, and Saba and his older brother Sandroare finally left truly motherless, like most children in fairy tales.

Almost two decades later, when Saba is 27 and Sandro 29, Irakli is drawn inexorably back to Tbilisi. Why? We don't really know, but Vardiashvili conveys a sense that you can in fact go home again — and must. Irakli goes silent. Sandro follows and disappears, too. And this is where the story of "Hard by a Great Forest" really begins, as Saba sets out to find out what has happened to his father and brother.

When we land in Tbilisi with Saba we are in a fairy tale world, though one redrawn by Kafka and a never-ending procession of power-mad players and politicians. Because there's just been a flood that "washed the zoo downriver," as Saba's rogue taxi driver and eventual companion Nodar informs him, there are even wolves roaming the city and environs (along with ostriches, a hippopotamus and a waddle of gentoo penguins).

What follows is an at once predictably and unpredictably strange journey. Saba, under duress — relieved of his passport and mysteriously hounded by a seemingly obsessed detective — pursues clues ("breadcrumbs") left by Sandro in his search for Irakli, both of whom are also being hunted by the police.

Voices from Saba's past accompany and steer him on his way including "superhero uncle" Anzor; Nino, the "keeper of [his] darkest secret...sister in all the ways that matter but blood"; drunkard neighbor and "first friend" Surik, and Lena, his "spartan Grandma," whose spine was turned to steel by "[t]wo world wars, a steady diet of Stalinism, Communist Pioneer camps, and being shot at by German soldiers." In this way, Vardiashvili layers time upon time, with the family's story and Georgia's recent history emerging as Saba's tale unfolds.

And what a tale it is. Underlying the drama and occasional absurdity of the search for Sandro and Irakli is the menace and madness of a country plagued by seemingly endless civil war, the "sides" forever shifting even as age-old traditions and character persist. "A guest is a gift from god" is a constant refrain, though this doesn't mean Saba's host — or his "first friend" — won't betray him. And when Saba's quest carries him, barraged by bullets and border guards, into the mountains of Ossetia, the defensive watchtowers that dot medieval villages there suggest that the war over land here is as old as history.

"Like a fairy tale," the ghost of Eka says to Saba, "you finish it and realize you knew the ending all along." What you can't know, and what makes this story so spellbinding, is what happens along the way.

Ellen Akins is a Wisconsin-based writer and teacher of writing.

Hard by a Great Forest

By: Leo Vardiashvili.

Publisher: Riverhead, 340 pages, $29.