In this debut novel, an inquisitive, determined lad comes of age and explores his sexuality in Yugoslavia during the 1980s.
Maher presents approximately 30 years of Daniel’s life, beginning with a disruptive family event that occurs when he’s 10. As a child, Daniel leads a fairy-tale existence, albeit mostly in a negative way, with an unstable mother, a distant father, and a wicked stepmother. The dawning awareness of his homosexuality adds a further sense of alienation among his peers, so he largely keeps to himself and focuses on academic achievement. The author sets the tone in the preface: “When one is different, the answers have to come from within.” One bright spot in all of this turmoil is Daniel’s deep bond with his paternal grandmother, perhaps the best-drawn and most affecting relationship in the book. His loss of virginity with a Bosnian soldier confirms Daniel’s physical desires, but he yearns for the emotional fulfillment of a meaningful relationship. While casual sex indeed serves a purpose over the next decade or so, Daniel continues to seek the elusive true love. During his college years in Zagreb, he takes a trip to Ibiza and meets a hunky, similarly repressed Spaniard named Tonio. Maher notably captures the intensity of this connection even though it’s short-lived due to circumstances beyond Daniel’s control. Perhaps intentionally, pillow talk fluctuates between trashy and maudlin throughout the novel. Regardless, Maher capably handles pacing and suspense: as Daniel repairs past damage with one of his parents and earns advanced degrees, it’s clear that the revelation of a stigmatized sexual orientation could still jeopardize his personal relationships and professional opportunities. However, given that the bulk of the action takes place in Croatia, it’s worth noting that Maher does not directly address the dissolution of Yugoslavia that occurred during the same time period.
A respectable first novel with a solid balance of drama, sex, and romance.