The Indrawn Heart: An Estonian Journey by Max Boyle

The Indrawn Heart by Author Max Boyle

Star Rating: ***

Pages: 200

First published by Lakeshore Press in 2013

Motivation to travel and subsequently write about those experiences comes in many forms.  Many are drawn to travel because they have a sense of wanderlust or a desire to break away from the rat-race norm; striving to achieve more than they believe will be attained by sitting at a desk every day.  Max Boyle travels to retrace his past.  To experience the country that was abandoned in haste by his mother during a time of persecution. 

He wants to rediscover his heritage, wants to uncover the character of the Estonian people – the people that he has a connection with.  Finding a poem by the late Juhan Liiv, he wants to uncover whether this is a true representation of his mother’s home or whether there is something more meaningful sitting behind the words.

You are so Little, Little

You are so little, too little,

       to be seen,

          to be known,

          to be felt. 

          You are a little land,

          and little your speech:

          you have an indrawn heart

          they cannot reach!

          Estonia, you have no voice.

          Others, they call;

          you go alone on your way,

 not asked at all.                        

                                                                                                                  (Juhan Liiv – 1864-1913)

 Poetry is an emotive medium for many, and each person will interpret the words in a way that is meaningful only to them.  We have all sat in literature lessons arguing what we believe was the intention behind the words of someone like Yeats, Keats or Byron.  We have all tried to understand the motifs and the hidden meaning behind the words written on a page.  Of course, the only person that can really confirm what was meant is the author themselves, however on many occasions, these questions are only raised posthumously. 

So with poem in hand and flight booked, Max heads over to Estonia to ascertain whether the stereotypical idea he has, depicting reticent people is, in fact, true.

“…speaking is silver, silence is gold.” (proverb)

Arriving at a hostel in Tallinn, guidebook in hand, Max gets his first taste of the country in the heat of summer.  Having travelled here before, he has experienced the cold, biting wintry days that the country is probably better known for, whereas he has yet to suffer the unbearable, sun-drenched warmer months.

Over the last few years a certain group of travellers have started to frequent this particular city according to Max:

“Only the loutish British stag parties seem to covet the country – or at least the pubs and racier nightclubs of the  capital city…”                                                                                                                                                             

However, this is not the Estonia he wants to concentrate on:

“…the ‘new’ Estonia, was where I was heading, with the intentions of documenting my travels.  The journey ahead of with was not without its concerns… I knew that beyond Tallinn and the few other cities, Estonia would peter out into small towns, villages and hamlets, and flat, sparsely populated countryside…”                                                 

It is this isolation that could cement the theory that Estonians were known to have ‘indrawn’ hearts. 

With only 1.3 million people, Estonia is a relatively small nation, with tourists making up 20% of the country’s annual income.  Outside of Tallinn, this means that it is going to be difficult to find individuals that will be able to converse fluently in English – finding the true nature of this population of people could therefore, turn into an unachievable task.

No matter which country you travel to there will always be differences, divides and challenges that are unique to the area rather than the country. Max’s aim to discover whether the thoughts of the people in Estonia are uniform could lead to his findings being as diverse as its landscape.

Travelling from Tallinn, we follow Max’s anti-clockwise route through Lasnamäe, Paide, Tartu, Viljandi and Pärnu before he heads north towards Russia and Lake Peipsi.  Along the way, there will be places that you yourself would choose to visit and some, that are questionable.  Sillamäe, for example, is known for having a ‘beautiful deep blue’ lake, which is the result of uranium processing plant set up in 1948 – not sure I would choose to go there; although radiation is now at normal levels.  Kuressaare, on the other hand, has a delightful sounding B & B that I would like to try.

This is an exploration of both a relatively unknown country and of its people.  Some are receptive to Max’s questions along the way, willing to answer with thought and openness, others prefer to master the stereotype and remain apprehensive and wary of what will happen if they answer in too much depth.

Whether you are intrigued by people or places this is a book that could pique your interest.  Describing his surroundings in full to try and help you in envisage these places for yourself means that at times, the narrative feels slightly laborious.  At other times, however, Max’s writing is entertaining and thought-provoking. 

For anyone who has a desire to understand the changing dynamic of the Estonia before visiting, this is an ideal book for you.

4 Comments

  • Max Boyle says:

    The Indrawn Heart has been favourably reviewed by the illustrious American journal World Literature Today. Scroll down to the fourth review on:

    http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2015/may/nota-benes-may-2015

  • Maxwell says:

    OK, thanks for clarifying.

  • Maxwell (Max Boyle) says:

    Sally Shalam, in ‘Tips for Travel Writing’, states that ‘what sets good travel writing apart is detail, detail, detail. Which cafe, on what street, overlooking what view?…Paint an evocation of where you are so that we can experience it along with you.’
    In the same online piece, Benji Lanyado notes that that his golden rule when writing a travel piece is ‘to include as much visual description as possible. It’s easy to presume a lot, but your readers don’t know what you’ve seen.’ He continues: ‘To say a building is ‘old’ isn’t good enough: explain the colours, the peeling stucco, the elaborate, angular finishes on windowsills, the cleaning lady in a faded blue smock who was leaning out of a second-storey window with a cigarette dangling from her mouth.’
    With these points in mind I must quibble with the penultimate section (and so, to a degree, with the credibility) of the Travelling Book Junkie review of The Indrawn Heart. Describing ‘surroundings in full to try and help you envisage these places for yourself’ is, rather than ‘laborious’, precisely what travel writers should be doing.
    Though this is the Internet age, with arguably an ever-shortening reader attention span, I think most of the book-buying public can cope with, and appreciate, a little more than merely barebones descriptions in travel literature.

    http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2011/sep/23/travel-writing-tips-expert-advice

    • Yes I think it is important to describe your surroundings so that your readers can fully envisage for themselves the area, place or atmosphere. In a time however, where many are choosing to research a place in more depth before visiting they are often looking for short, snappy narratives. This is not to say that I did not enjoy your book, it was more a point for note – if you are not an individual who enjoys long narratives this many not be a book for you. It was an honest observation – I also highlighted that I found your work thought-provoking and at times humorous.

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