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When I Was Better, by Rita Bozi

2023 International Firebird Book Award Winner

“With sharp insight and the gifts of a natural, Bozi’s novel brilliantly chronicles the plight of an entire generation of Hungarians through the intimate portrait of two lovers tested by the political and personal betrayals that ripped through the heart of the twentieth century.”

—Dennis Bock, author of The Ash Garden

“When I Was Better is a masterfully written historical novel – a coming-of-age story filled with troubled love, totalitarianism and war. The story is rich, intriguing and the characters are very much flesh and blood. Reading it deepens our understanding of oppression, freedom and what turns ordinary people into refugees; a reality we must begin to comprehend on a personal level. History is not just history; this novel allows us an intimate view from a generational context. We need this book.”

—Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir, author of The Creator

“When I Was Better is a tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit, of the indistinguishable light of hope in the darkest of times. Tragic but inspiring, ugly yet beautiful. I could not put it down and did not want it to end.”

—Lorinda Stewart, author of One Day Closer

“When I Was Better is a remarkable achievement, very engaging, warm and exciting. It lets us in on all of the sadnesses and glories of such times and leaves us hoping that the best in us will survive and prevail.”

—Joseph Kertes, author of Last Impressions

Both dark and humorous, the novel’s title is taken from a Hungarian saying, “When I was better, I didn’t brag.” When I Was Better, set in Hungary and Canada, chronicles the twenty-year relationship of István and Teréza, from the Nazi invasion, the Soviet occupation and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 to their reunion in Winnipeg in 1964.

On the cold, winter day István leaves his wife and infant son in western Hungary, Soviet tanks have crushed the Revolution and the spirit of the people. He is of the last of two hundred thousand refugees fleeing to Austria. His wife Etelka, traumatized by the war and violence of the occupation, is left to fend for herself and her baby after an act of desperation forces her husband to abandon his young family and choose self-preservation over duty.

Battered by private betrayals and public humiliations, the young couple learns that laughing at the absurd is a saving grace until a seven-year separation tests their endurance and their love. Moving between Budapest and Winnipeg, the novel explores the moral dilemmas that leave a legacy of secrecy, shame, isolation and relational ruptures. It shows how an autocracy corrupts its citizens by reviling truth and making survival with dignity a transgressive act. It is a moving chronicle of a refugee crisis from a different time.

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