A Bosnian girl experiences offbeat love and traumatic loss in this anguished, luminous coming-of-age saga.
Fatima Begovic is a bright, inquisitive, feisty teen, fond of Jane Austen novels—“bitter stories about a kind of high-class peasantry,” as her English tutor glosses them—and Beverly Hills 90210. Growing up in a small town in Bosnia in the early ’90s, she wants nothing more than a normal life, but neither fate nor her heart’s promptings seem likely to grant it. She falls in love with a peasant named Aziz, but his lack of prospects, and certain other rumored oddities, make him a poor match in the eyes of her parents. Then there’s the gathering storm of the Yugoslavian civil war, which starts with a new requirement that Fatima register as a Muslim, proceeds through taunts and threats from local toughs and escalates to drive-by shootings and worse at the hands of Serbian militias. Fatima’s father seems paralyzed by the danger, while her mother vents her anxiety with compulsive cleaning binges, and Fatima and Aziz make the wrenching decision to leave. But while Fatima finds safety of a sort, the poverty and anomie of refugee life forces her and Aziz to follow desperate new paths. Mahmutovic, himself a Bosnian refugee, paints a raw, intimate portrait of Bosnian village life and of the seething ethnic tensions that tore it apart. He writes prose that’s sometimes subtle and delicate—“she gave the impression of a half-asleep fox from Russian stories, sly and ready to bite even when she looked tame and kind”—and sometimes sensuous and earthy, words that manage to be both psychologically acute and lyrical. Fatima’s longing for a life of warmth and vibrancy as her reality grows cold and desolate makes for an imaginative rendering of the damage wrought by racism and war.
A fine, moving debut from a talented writer.