Giving voice to people living on the periphery in post-communist Bulgaria, Four Minutes centers around Leah, an orphan who suffered daily horrors growing up, and now struggles to integrate into society as a gay woman. She confronts her trauma by trying to volunteer at the orphanage, and to adopt a young girl—a choice that is frustrated over and over by bureaucracy and the pervasive stigma against gay women.
In addition to Leah’s narrative, the novel contains nine other standalone character studies of other frequently ignored voices. These sections are each meant to be read in approximately four minutes, a nod to a social experiment that put forth the hypothesis that it only takes four minutes of looking someone in the eye and listening to them in order to accept and empathize with them.
A meticulously crafted social novel, Four Minutes takes a difficult, uncompromising look at modern life in Eastern Europe.
There are many different things happening in Four Minutes, the debut novel by Nataliya Deleva, so many different ideas compacted into a 135 page book. The larger story is about Leah, a gay woman who has aged out of a orphanage and is trying to make sense of her life. She is haunted by her childhood, but she still continues to volunteer at the orphanage, seeking answers. She does connect with one child, Dara, but the politics of her adopting the child makes it impossible. Interjected in the story of Leah is nine short pieces, each one about a different, non-connected person, each one in theory is supposed to take four minutes to read. The four minutes theme is a tribute to a social experiment that says that if you look someone in the eye and listen to them for four minutes, you will accept them and find empathy for their stories.
There are so many things I love about this novel, but the main one is the tone of the book. There is not a single moment when the darkness and sadness of human reality is not on display. There is very little hope, very little joy in any of this story, and the tone is so heavy that you cannot walk away from this novel without being affected. From the very first paragraph, when the girls are huddled in the dark, waiting for daylight, hoping that they are not picked for the nightly abuse, we know that we are in for a heartbreaking novel.
If you are invested in someone’s heartbreak, you know that you do not come out of the other side of the story feeling good. This is a prime example of this. Four Minutes will not make you feel good. You will not be happy at the end. You will feel that empathy and sadness that is pressed on every page of this novel. I am a person that likes a novel like this periodically, one that is bleak and beautiful. I want people to read this novel. I want to share the sadness that I now feel.