In Croatian novelist Novak's English-language debut, a young novelist is forced to confront the terrible moment in his childhood when his career as a fable-maker began, not by choice but by necessity.
Matija is a writer with two well-received novels behind him, but he's been floundering for more than a year now on a follow-up, and one by one his trusted readers are confirming what he has suspected: It's going nowhere. Meanwhile, Matija's girlfriend, Dina, with whom he's been happy, issues an ultimatum: He has to keep his inventions confined to fiction, has to stop being so deceitful—or is it just evasive?—about his childhood. As a test, Dina brings several old photos for him to explicate. Matija does so, at length and feelingly, before Dina tearfully informs him that the photos are fakes; she has doctored them herself, and they have nothing to do with him. After Dina dumps him, Matija reluctantly decides to revisit an epoch he has utterly expunged from memory—the years before, at age 7, he and his family left their village in Međimurje for Zagreb at the beginning of the Yugoslav Wars in 1991. Coming to grips with that past requires him to excavate the lonely, awful, bewildering period immediately after his father's death, a stretch whose agonies culminated in an epidemic of eight suicides in Matija's village. That suicide cluster attracted attention not only to the village, but to a particular little boy, in the research called M.D., who knew all the victims and who was thought by some (perhaps including himself) to be obscurely responsible. Novak captures well the way that grief may isolate, dislocate, and unmoor the bereaved, especially if it's a child left largely to fend for himself. The boy Matija wanders the countryside looking for his dead father and trying to negotiate for his return—from the police, from the land itself, and from the folkloric "will-o'-the-wisps" who inhabit the region.
A search for the painful and awkward wellsprings of the novelistic imagination.