by Lea Ypi (Allen Lane £20, 336pp) 

Two close friends of the family are at bitter end. . . What happens to empty Coca-Cola bottles?

This may sound crazy but it was the way life was in Socialist Albania at the start of 1990. One family treasured the Coca-Cola can as their most valuable possession. The Coca-Cola can was found under Enver Hoxha’s photo, the lamented communist prime minister, and sat in front of the TV in the living area.

Coca-Cola is not something Albanians have ever consumed. This exotic and fizzy drink was not available to locals. It could only be purchased in prohibited tourist shops. Visitors from West Africa dropped empty cans, which were then scavenged and displayed.

Lea Ypi was 11 and her Papas were shocked to discover their can was missing. Lea came running into Lea’s room screaming. She pointed at Lea’s new can, accusing the Papas of stealing it. The peaceful Lea, hiding at the tree’s top all afternoon until her mother became so upset that she began to cry out of pain and her Papas offered their sympathy. It was over.

Abiding love: Lea Ypi as a child with her grandmother

Lea Ypi with her grandmother as a child: Abiding love

Lea’s biggest complaint about the falling out was that the mother’s ‘ignore each other’ in the lines. It was the queues. This gripping memoir from Lea Ypi’s childhood, which she was born in Albania in 1978 and now teaches Political Theory at LSE, is a poignant account of queuing in Socialist Eastern Europe.

The queues to get milk and kerosene began in the middle hours of the night and continued into the morning. While you could leave the queue at any time, you needed to be replaced by a stone that’represents’ you. The stone that was supposed to be representing you became ineffective as soon as supplies started arriving and people began moving forward. These queues created lifelong relationships through kindnesses and selfishness.

While we may laugh about the seeming hopelessness of Socialism now, what a horrible disaster!

You are prohibited from taking foreign holidays, you cannot be promoted in your career, you can’t have any job promotion throughout your life, you will not have power, you may face deportation, death, and imprisonment if you dare to criticize Uncle Enver.

This fascinating memoir reveals that the system worked in an absurd manner and Lea was indoctrinated to believe it was superior to the immoral imperialist West. When the one-party system ended in December 1990 and Hoxha’s statue fell, everything around Lea began to collapse. When the state enterprises that they had worked for were closed, her parents lost their jobs.

It sounds crazy, but this was life in Socialist Albania in early 1990. The Coca-Cola can was one family's most prized possession. It sat on top of the television in the living room, under the photo of the late, lamented communist Prime Minister Enver Hoxha, known by all as 'Uncle Enver'.

This may sound crazy but it was the way life was in Socialist Albania at the start of 1990. One family treasured the Coca-Cola can as their most valuable possession. It was placed on the top of the television, in the living-room, beneath the photograph of Enver Hoxha (later, lamented communist Prime Minster), and everyone called it ‘Uncle Enver.

Lea learned the truth about her parents in that instant. In secret, they never supported ‘the Party’ and had procrastinated hanging that Uncle Enver photo.

Lea’s mother was from an wealthy family that owned real estate in the area, which included the property that would become the Party headquarters. Lea would not have been promoted if she had written a bio like that. Her mother was always looking up at the fifth floor window as they passed by Party Headquarters. She found out her grandmother, who was a so-called enemy of the people and had fled torture in 1947 from that same window.

Her father, who was convicted of ‘agitation & propaganda’ in 1995 and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Lea’s parents were unable to survive in the lowly job they had by pretending disassociation from their parents while keeping their heads down.

You’d expect things to have improved with the fall of the terrifying one-party system in 1992. They did, at least in part. Lea finally was allowed to fly abroad with her grandmother. They flew from Athens to meet her grandfather, who introduced her to chewing gum and a loo which had a chair. To use on special occasions, they kept Lea’s white plastic cutlery.

How liberating was that so-called freedom? The desire to escape to better lives was felt by many Albanians, who were denied entry to the West. She did get her father a job, and he eventually became the general director at the largest port in Albania. Although it was hard for him to let go of hundreds of Roma workers, many of whom had been working at the port for years, he couldn’t help but feel guilty. Roma families came to the garden of his family, asking him for their employment.

Turgid books of political theory are not always the best. This book is about political reality as it appears to be lived by a girl growing up. It shows the possibilities of what might happen when a system has suddenly been dismantled.

Lea’s high school friend was a prostitute in Milan. Lea left her child in an Albanian orphanage, where she met other children like hers.

As a result, much more was to follow. Albanians were encouraged positively by their government to make investments in pyramid schemes that would fail. This led to about half of all savings being lost, even her family.

This calamity was the catalyst for civil war in 1997. Lea illustrates pages taken from her diary, which describe looting and curfews as well school closures and fear. She writes that in 1990, there was only hope. “In 1997, we also lost this.”

On the shore she said goodbye to her grandmother and father, then sailed to Italy. She never came back. Every word of this book reveals her love for her country and family.