Historical fiction about a Croatian woman coming-of-age in war-torn Europe.
Raguz (The Labyrinth of Vukovar, 2016) begins this sweeping tale in the early 20th century as a young Jewish woman discovers that’s she’s become pregnant by her Christian boyfriend. Unable to confess to her family, Bertha Klein runs away to another Slovenian city and changes her identity. Later, Bertha dies during childbirth, leaving her seamstress friend, Lucia, to raise baby Emma. Lucia and her husband rear the girl as their own, treating her as kindly as they do their older sons. But Emma’s peaceful childhood is disrupted when the effects of war and poverty hit her small Croatian town. After Emma reaches her teenage years, Lucia secures her a job as a maid in a nearly empty castle, and the young woman dutifully sends her wages back to her family. Eventually, the quiet castle receives long-term guests, including a handsome young baron, Erik Farkas. Emma and Erik are drawn to each other, but they know that their social status will prevent any future together. Even so, they enjoy an intense tryst before Erik and his family members depart. Emma is even more devastated when she discovers that she’s pregnant. As she pines for her lost love, she raises her son, experiences relationships with other men, and tries to survive war and political strife. In straightforward prose, this story covers nearly a full century, chronicling historical events in Croatia and Hungary right along with those in Emma’s personal life. The tale is rich with detail about the intimidation tactics of the Communist regime in Croatia (“If you omitted something or dared to lie to us, you’ll be held accountable,” one militia man tells Emma), and about the hopelessness that many everyday people experienced, due in part to mass persecutions. That said, the story’s 700-plus pages could have been easily pared down without sacrificing any of the suspense that it manages to build during the wartime sections. Overall, though, Raguz tells an engaging tale that sheds light on its era.
A nostalgic examination of the effects of war, bigotry, and lost opportunities.