Almost two decades ago, the war in Bosnia was belatedly forced to an end by Western diplomats. Katja Rudolph’s debut novel is a visceral reminder that we share our country with survivors of this and many other wars — Canadians whose new identities can never fully erase the pall of memory.
It is 1992 in besieged Sarajevo. The outbreak of war has shocked the culture-proud city. The Andric family has both Serb and Croat blood – they are victims of ethnic divisions foisted on them by outside forces. Ten-year-old Jevrem is devoted to his grandmother, who once battled Germans as a Yugoslav partisan. Fifty years on, Jevrem observes her stoical response to renewed carnage.
Rudolph captures the nightmarish siege with authority and assurance. Occasional monologues featuring potted history notwithstanding, the author blends sharp character work with a seductive backstory.
Flash forward to 1997 Toronto, where the family grieves the loss of Jevrem’s father, brother, and baby sister. Jevrem’s mother once had a modest career as a pianist, performing as far afield as Vienna. In Toronto she’s reduced to cleaning houses. For his part, Jevrem joins a mini-gang of war-scarred Bosnian thugs who thrive on home invasions and gleeful assaults. His grandmother says he’s fallen in with the wrong crowd, but Jevrem has his own take: “I’m the wrong crowd, and the others, poor fucking bastards, fell in with me.” Jevrem takes some homeless First Nations people on an illicit “spa” night, leading to a break-in at a public pool. Arrest finally comes, then juvenile prison, where Jevrem jockeys for supremacy in the cruel hierarchy.
Rudolph’s grimy Toronto matches her bomb-blasted Sarajevo for immediacy, though there are implausible moments. When police are called to a house and find a bleeding, pistol-whipped teenager, terrorized parents, and a TV full of bullet holes, do they really let the victims decide whether charges should be pursued?
The latter stages of the novel find Jevrem on the road, a fugitive smuggled into the U.S. by two eccentric truckers. California beckons. Rudolph veers close to cliché here, but her final chapters calibrate redemption with a sure hand. – Jim Bartley, a novelist and playwright in Toronto.