Two British soldiers fall in love amid the devastation of wartime Sarajevo in this debut novel.
For the British narrator, a United Nations Military Observer, the 1990s Balkans War seems incomprehensible. Serbian snipers entertain themselves by targeting “anyone wearing the colour yellow” one day and children the next. Bosnian fighters steal into Serbian posts in the dead of night to butcher medics and are hailed as heroes for their actions. Reports of vicious ethnic cleansing by Croats, Bosnians, and Serbs arrive with almost numbing regularity. Lt. Isabella Harris, a calm and capable Brit who’s fluent in Serbo-Croatian, has returned for her third tour of duty in the region. The narrator, new to the horrors of war, quickly falls for her and joins her missions to transport people and supplies across enemy lines. One such operation in the village of Žepa introduces him to a beautiful girl named Katarina, who serves as a symbol for everything bright and innocent that’s been blighted by violence. After Serbs open fire on his vehicle, the narrator returns to Britain for extensive physical therapy on his severely wounded leg. It’s a surprise when Isabella visits his rehab unit, kindling a blissful romance that’s cut short by her determination to return to Sarajevo. Terrified for her safety, the narrator joins her, sensing that there will be a price to pay for their service. Parr’s novel excels at descriptions of both shocking carnage and characters’ ensuing PTSD, offering blunt and effective portraits of various traumas. It’s particularly noteworthy how well Isabella manages to function under bloody, stressful circumstances—until she simply can’t anymore. But the romance elements prove much staler than the surrounding story, and the narrator’s effectiveness fluctuates. A fundamentally simple man, he refers to Serbia as “the dark side” and makes comments like “The BBC always told the truth and we should always believe in that.” This naiveté successfully represents the average outsider’s view of events, but readers will likely wonder what Isabella, with her knowledgeable and subtle perspective, could have contributed as a joint narrator.
An occasionally formulaic but powerful tale about the brutality of hatred and the balm of love.