You can never tell how others might react to your art. This is the takeaway from Jim Bartley’s new novel, Makarska, about one family’s lingering scars from the Bosnian War of the mid-1990s. The artist in question is young Mirza, who was just a boy when he emigrated to Toronto with his family following the conflict. Now an adult, Mirza has received an artistic grant to assemble a kind of Ballardian atrocity exhibit about the horrors of war.
Each member of Mirza’s family has been damaged by the conflict: Pero, the grandfather, suffered a brain injury after getting struck by a piece of shrapnel; Adem, Mirza’s father, lost a brother just months before the fighting ended; and, most horrifically, Mirza’s mother, Krista, spent a week trapped in a kind of rape camp, an experience she keeps secret until a crucial part of the novel. Yet Bartley makes clear, through the first-person narration of Mirza’s gay uncle, Alex, that Mirza may not have the necessary maturity to render his family’s trauma into art.
Mirza has what feels like only a superficial grasp of these various wounds, and yet Alex relays his nephew’s story with sensitivity. This is because Mirza is awakening to his own homosexuality, leading him to discover some important aspects of himself as he prepares for his exhibit. We also learn that Alex suffers from his own trauma: he lost his partner, Lyle, in a freak traffic accident during the same summer the Bosnian horrors were being inflicted on his family.
Bartley does a good job setting up and then weaving together these various threads, and they lead to a telling moment when Mirza realizes how his audience’s reaction to the exhibit varies from his intention. But what this novel really hinges on is Krista and her eventual disclosure about her rape. In a book about conflict and genocide, this one woman’s story snaps so much of the rest of the novel into focus. We learn, through her, what the true horror of war can do to a person. It is the moment where this engaging novel truly shines.