This book by Elvira Dones grabs the attention with its subject matter even before you turn the first page. The "sworn virgin" of the title is a traditional designation given to women in northern Albania who take on the male role in households that lack a man at the helm – absolutely necessary in this patriarchal society. They dress as a man, smoke and drink as a man, carry a gun and take part in village politics as a man – all with the proviso that they remain a virgin for the rest of their life.
Dones's protagonist, Hana, does just this. Orphaned at 10, and brought up by her uncle and aunt, she takes the decision to turn virgjinesha at the age of 20. In part this is because her frequent hitch-hikes down from their remote village into the city to fetch cancer drugs for her uncle Gjergj leave her – as a young woman – vulnerable, such that she carries a knife to defend herself; in part it is because she wants to honour the dying man's sense of tradition. The central scene has her rifling through his trunk in search of a set of men's clothes in which to present herself to him, and him solemnly giving her an ancient rifle handed down through six generations.
The book starts, though, in 2001, with Hana, aged 34, arriving in America to stay with her emigrated cousin Lila. Not that she's Hana now – she's Mark, and has been for 14 years, and it's her struggle to reclaim her womanhood that fills this part of the novel, along with the natural disorientation that comes with a move to urban America from a mountain village of less than 300 people. Other sections backtrack to Albania, first to Hana's teenage years, to show what she had to give up when she changed genders: her university studies, and the beginnings of an interest in boys.
As well as this unusual coming-of-age story, with its shadow of death and grief, Dones gives us a compelling portrait of life under communist rule, where "anyone who owns a pair of jeans in Tirana is rich and powerful".
In other words, this is the tale of two dilemmas –whether to take on the male role, and then how to remove it – and in this the shuttling two-part structure is a bit of a distraction. The American sections become repetitive, dominated by endless arguments with Lila, and Hana's slowly developing relationship with Patrick, a journalist to whom she tells her story, and with whom she hopes, eventually, finally, to have sex. It is a fascinating story, then, but less emotionally involving than it might have been.