Covering five days following the fall of Srebrenica in 1995, Lesleyanne Ryan’s debut novel provides a potent – and extremely graphic – look at ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war. Ryan tells the story via the alternating perspectives of six characters, but the main protagonist is a Bosnian civilian named Atif, a 14-year-old boy forced to flee the slaughter through a forest and escape to the city of Tuzla. Other points of view include Tarak, a Bosnian soldier who accompanies Atif; Michael, a Canadian photojournalist who plays an instrumental role in the boy’s fate; a Dutch peacekeeper; a Serbian soldier; and Atif’s mother.
There is much to love about this novel. Ryan, a retired UN peacekeeper who served in Bosnia from 1993 to ’94, has crafted a harrowing tale that puts us right in the middle of the tension and violence. Ryan infuses her story with genuine suspense: until the very end, the reader remains unsure whether Atif will survive his journey. The author is also adept at capturing the strife of the period, from the casual lies Serbian soldiers told themselves in order to enact their massacres to the impotence of UN forces to the use of cigarettes as currency.
Braco does, however, have a number of flaws. At more than 450 pages, it’s too long, and at least three of the narrative perspectives – those of Atif’s mother, the peacekeeper, and the Serbian soldier – feel extraneous. The book also relies too heavily on dialogue: there are pages and pages of nearly uninterrupted exchanges, some of which are wooden or expository. Ryan also has the unfortunate tic of beginning several chapters with somebody being woken up; once you start to notice this repetition, it can’t help but get annoying.
Still, there’s no denying the power of Ryan’s storytelling. She keeps her editorializing to a minimum and merely presents the geopolitical tragedy of Bosnia in a raw, unflinching tale that many readers will no doubt find moving.