This magical realist debut novel explores a family’s connection to the mountains of post–World War II Bosnia.
Mijo Pavlović’s young son, Mirko, says that a bee “bit” him during a winter night, but despite the narrator’s insistence, Mijo doesn’t believe it’s one of the fairylike “Wisps” that nip children and give them “dreams that stir the soul.” Zurak’s first-person omniscient narrator initially and charmingly evokes an old-fashioned storyteller—“But alas, we who they visit cannot hear them”—but this technique is later dropped. Years later, when Mirko is drafted into Communist Yugoslavia’s navy, he doesn’t understand “why [his family members] would want to stop him” from sailing the world, so he leaves home angrily. His 13-year-old brother, Mato, must now support the family, and he runs 20 miles to and from the steel mill each day. One night, “demons of the forest” attack him, and he climbs a magical tree that becomes a lifelong sanctuary. When Mato is 16, the pretty, talented Verka brightens his outlook, and the troubled Mirko, newly returned from service, attempts to gain her affections. Only when Mato faces impending military service does Mirko confess his own horrific war experiences. Mato listens, and during his military years he writes home: “There’s a beautiful price in doing [Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz] Tito’s most beautiful work.” When Mato finally returns to his family (including his daughter, the titular but oddly unimportant Kata), Mijo offers his son “a gift,” in a speech that borders on preachy. Soon, Mato decides to battle his demons literally, in ways that don’t quite fit with the novel’s fabulist tone. That said, Zurak’s prose sparkles with memorable characters and images, as well as some graceful lines, such as “Nations remember peace like your stomach remembers being full.” Further editorial polishing to eliminate repetition, clunky dialogue (“Oh, you got me. Wow!”), and syntactical and punctuation errors would have increased this ambitious novel’s impact.
A sprawling fable that illuminates Bosnian culture and history through unique, multidimensional characters.