This is a sad book, with just a hint of hope.
It begins with an 11-year-old boy's experiences, and how they turn him into a man too quickly. It tells about a once-beautiful city and country, about what war does to the place and the people, about family life and how complicated it can be along age and ethnic differences over time, about growing up under tragic circumstances, and about falling into the depths and rising above them.
This is Katja Rudolph's first novel. Her writing is lyrical at times, which can be incongruous when writing about a desperate and dangerous place. The 11-year-old Jevrem's vocabulary is way ahead of his age; he is both a child, and a man beyond his years. War does that to people.
Jevrem lives in Sarajevo, at the time barely hanging on to remain in Yugoslavia. But the Bosnian War begins, and the Siege of Sarajevo is on. The "ideal" federation of Yugoslavia created by Josip Broz Tito, the country's president until his death in 1980, is disintegrating, the various nations tentatively held together fed up with a federation where some are more equal than others.
Jevrem's family is caught in the middle; his pianist mother is Croatian, and his journalist father is Serbian. His fraternal grandmother, Baka, lives her senior years through her youthful experiences as a Tito partisan in the Second World War. Baka and her son still fiercely believe in Tito's ideal state.
While the war still rages, of the family only Mama, her son Jevrem, younger daughter Aisha, and Baka, her ancient partisan mother-in-law, survive to move to Canada -- the rest die in battles and from hunger. Jevrem's once-elegant concert-pianist mother cleans people's houses and washes toilets, as have so many once-professional immigrants before her.
In Toronto, Jevrem joins a violent gang made up of teens like him: "We call ourselves The Bastards of Yugoslavia as a joke. We like the word bastard... It's what the nationalists who took over our country called us, the offspring of women in mixed marriages. They meant it as an insult, but we feel proud... And Bosnia, split completely in half, Croats and Muslims on one side, Serbs on the other. Where were we beautiful mongrels meant to fit?"
The countries or nations weren't new -- they were there before Tito formed his "federation." What Serhii Plokhy wrote in The Last Empire about the Soviet Union's fall also applies to Yugoslavia: the U.S.S.R. collapsed because of "its imperial foundations, multi-ethnic composition, and pseudo-federal structure... It died the death of an empire, splitting along lines roughly defined by ethnic and linguistic boundaries."
Baka soon dies, but still haunts her grandson, who loved her despite her rantings. Jevrem changes after her death, and listens to her admonition to do some good, for once. After time in juvenile detention, he makes his way across America to Los Angeles to find his uncle, who escaped the war earlier. His trek is exciting and dangerous.
If soldiers returning from war come back with post-traumatic stress disorder, how can a boy not be mentally and emotionally affected in later life by the unbelievable horror he lives through before he even reaches his teens?
The horrors of war through the eyes of a child and his parents, the ugliness of teens gone wild, and the disintegration of what is left of a family -- even when well-written, it's not easy.
Orysia Tracz is a Winnipeg writer, translator and speaker.