• Free

  • Coming of Age at the End of History
  • By: Lea Ypi
  • Narrated by: Lea Ypi, Rachel Bavidge
  • Length: 9 hrs and 8 mins
  • 4.9 out of 5 stars (15 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Brought to you by Penguin.

Shortlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford prize and the 2021 Costa Biography Award. 

Lea Ypi grew up in one of the most isolated countries on earth, a place where communist ideals had officially replaced religion. Albania, the last Stalinist outpost in Europe, was almost impossible to visit, almost impossible to leave. It was a place of queuing and scarcity, of political executions and secret police. To Lea, it was home. People were equal, neighbours helped each other and children were expected to build a better world. There was community and hope.

Then, in December 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, everything changed. The statues of Stalin and Hoxha were toppled. Almost overnight, people could vote freely, wear what they liked and worship as they wished. There was no longer anything to fear from prying ears. But factories shut, jobs disappeared and thousands fled to Italy on crowded ships, only to be sent back. Predatory pyramid schemes eventually bankrupted the country, leading to violent conflict. As one generation's aspirations became another's disillusionment and as her own family's secrets were revealed, Lea found herself questioning what freedom really meant.

Free is an engrossing memoir of coming of age amid political upheaval. With acute insight and wit, Lea Ypi traces the limits of progress and the burden of the past, illuminating the spaces between ideals and reality and the hopes and fears of people pulled up by the sweep of history.

©2021 Lea Ypi (P)2021 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

"Funny, moving but also deadly serious, this book will be read for years to come.... Beautifully brings together the personal and the political to create an unforgettable account of oppression, freedom and what it means to acquire knowledge about the world." (David Runciman)

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  • Anonymous User
  • 11-04-21

must read

truly incredible book, would give it 6 stars if I could. very well written and a remarkable journey.

3 people found this helpful

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  • Miss Julie Wright
  • 12-23-21

A powerful and enthralling read.

What a great listen.
I was absolutely engrossed from start to finish.
The way Lea Ypi has told her stories bring human experience to the big political backdrop of Communist and post-Communist Albania (and, I feel, Eastern Europe more broadly).
I found it utterly fascinating!

2 people found this helpful

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  • Zofia Jaworek
  • 01-07-22

My favourite kind of book

This book has so much of what I love about reading. Colorful characters and interesting story are one thing, but a chance to step into someone else shoes, see life at different angle, take the old and familiar and give it all a new flavour - this is what great storytelling is. I finished the book feeling my head expanded and my heart grew a little.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Rachel Redford
  • 12-28-21

when university meant prison camp

Lea Ypi was 13 when Comrade Enver Hoxha the Stalinist communist leader of her country Albania died. She had been a keen child communist and accepted Hoxha as revered leader (she had even wanted his picture displayed in their home) and she couldn’t understand why her parents seemed to have different feelings. Lea Ypi now teaches Political Theory at the LSE and this memoir is on one level a child’s eye view of the disintegration of a country (and her family) and an adult inquiry into the nature of ‘freedom’.
There was a great deal that Ypi didn’t understand about her family and her country when she was a child, not least the mysterious importance attached to ‘biography’. During the Hoxha years she was impressed by all her family members who’d been to university and achieved great honours, only to find years later that her parents had been speaking in code and all those accounts of friends and family who had graduated so illustriously in fact had been in prison camps and prisons, survived (or not) dreadful punishments, been executed or committed suicide (the ultimate graduation). She came to understand her parents’ status as intellectuals only later, and how her highly connected Grandmother who spoke only French had suffered such cruel loss in Greece. When she saw pictures in her reading book in late childhood she saw pictures of shops where there were NO QUEUES (Albanian queues could last for days and your place was kept with a stone or a bag), and she experienced her first highly prized Coke can. After Hoxha the family suffered the political collapse of Albania with the failed efforts at reform: the lack of electricity, the rumbling civil unrest – and then the failure of the pyramid saving schemes which lost so many Albanians their life savings and Ypi’s mother joined the emigration and fled to Italy. There’s a huge amount more and the whole is a very special human testament which creates the adult and the child view.

As an audiobook it has a problem which isn’t the narrator’s fault as no doubt she was instructed to read this way. The problem lies with the accents. Ypi’s father didn’t speak English until well into late middle age, which frustrated him; her grandmother spoke only French; Ypi herself resented speaking French and not Albanian, but learned faultless English; others spoke Albanian (and probably other languages too) – language is a very important part of this history freighted with very great significance. The problem is for the narration – how do you read the dialogue? The decision here was to give them regional English accents – Grandmother is aristocratic English and others are rough London, northern or something else. I think this was a mistake. The text tells us what language these people spoke and reading the book you’d have no trouble, but forcing English regional and cultural accents on the listener raises all kinds of issues which are confusing and distracting. I think the only way would have been to read it as the narrator reads the rest – it’s only the dialogue which raises the difficulties. So it only gets a 3 for performance and a 4 overall. The content is definitely a five.

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  • Sam Corkindale
  • 12-16-21

Fantastic crash course in all things Albania.

Interesting, informative, surprising, moving and exquisitely read. I am in love with the writer and the narrator!

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  • Ms
  • 05-20-22

Excellent

Lea Ypi has managed to show in an easy, intelligent listen what life was like in communist Albania and during its collapse and change. We hear about what the experience was like for her, for real people, from family, friends, neighbours to the wider community.
You are left understanding how the experience is so much wider than just Albania and how pertinent the question remains currently and globally of how we can create governments and systems for fair and happy societies.

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  • Kate
  • 05-07-22

Excellent book but spoiled by terrible narration

Fascinating insight into a little known country. Unfortunately this was massively let down by the reading. For some reason the narrator chose to use apparantly randomly chosen comedy-level 'working class' accents for any of the less educated characters. The result is both distracting and patronising. I wished I'd bought the book to read on paper. The epilogue is read by the author, it's a real shame she didn't read the book as a whole.

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  • Travelling Girl
  • 03-27-22

Riveting memoir of an extraordinary childhood

Thus is a vivid, unsentimental account of a childhood spanning abs subsiding transition in Albanian society. Lea Ypi presents a convincing account of a world seen through the eyes of an intelligent, quizzical child. The later chapters are confusing in places but this mirrored the confusion in her teenage minds as her world turned upside down, the righted itself, ran in a new direction and then, nudged firmly by the World Back, careered into a cliff.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 03-12-22

Very moving !

I heard an excerpt of this book being read on the radio and sought it out.
If you are interested in people and how belief systems shape them and their actions, then you will enjoy this book.
The final chapter was very moving.

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  • Gerald Rehn
  • 03-12-22

Absolutely moving and eye opening

What is ‘free’? Lea Ypi takes us through the struggles of Albania through the different forms of government and society the nation lived through, from communism to gangster capitalism, through her own eyes growing up. From my western background, the details of life under communism and the Albanians’ struggle to make democracy work were very educational and forces me to wonder what is truly ‘free’?

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  • Ashley Quinn
  • 05-01-22

Fascinating story and great epilogue

Loved this audiobook! The story intrigued me. But, by far the epilogue was the part I enjoyed most. Thank you Lea Ypi for sharing your story :)

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  • lr
  • 12-11-21

Food for Thought

I listen to a lot of audio books as I am driving during the day. This was a fascinating retelling of a forgotten part of 20th century history, and a cautionary tale about how easy it is to manipulate human perception.

I enjoyed the narration, but the non judgemental narrative by the author certainly allowed me to consider my own reactions and thoughts to the ever changing circumstances of her childhood.

This is an important book which shines a light on the cynical political manipulation of countries both after the collapse of socialism in Europe, and during the party dictatorships.

The takeaway lesson here is that people are pawns in an international and increasingly multinational game, where control and money take precedence over individuals.