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Drina Bridge

by Jim Bartley

The disturbingly graphic violence in the introductory paragraphs of Drina Bridge might give pause to the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Nevertheless, readers who forge on with this debut novel will be amply rewarded.

Bartley, a playwright and the “first fiction” reviewer for The Globe and Mail, builds the novel from two separate plot threads that gradually entwine. In Toronto, Chris Maitland’s partner, Pimm, dies of AIDS. Chris travels to the Strastanic Monastery in Serbia on a quest to seek out Pimm’s birth family, heal his overwhelming grief, and begin to rebuild his life. Interwoven with Chris’s journey of discovery is the memoir of Slobodan Kuzic, a 60-year-old Bosnian refugee. Scathing, and at times clearly embellished, it recounts his life in Yugoslavia, from his childhood in the Second World War to his struggles to survive amid the current ethnic conflict. Kuzic’s memoir provides the novel’s most graphic and violent scenes.

At the heart of Drina Bridge is a struggle between good and evil. We see the harmonious community of the monastery – with its liturgies, communal meals, and chores – contrasted with the exterior community, where drunkenness, gunfire, violence, and death are an everyday reality. Chris’s inner religious conflict echoes the larger one going on in Yugoslavia, where a struggle for superiority between Christians and Muslims is raging.

In Drina Bridge, Bartley weaves together an appealing, humane cast of characters whose internal and external struggles, while at times disturbing and sad, make for compelling reading.