More civilians die in today’s wars than soldiers. But this extraordinary debut illuminates a time and place where civilians fought back: Sarajevo, 1992.
How do you write a novel about the savage ethnic cleansing of the Balkan Wars that isn’t unbearably depressing? Simon (award-winning NPR journalist) has the answer. First, you focus on a sidebar story, with a sympathetic protagonist (the movie Hotel Rwanda took the same tack). Second, you don’t minimize the horror, but you get the worst of it out of the way early. Sarajevo’s agony began in April 1992, when the multiethnic, cosmopolitan city’s belief that it was immune to ethnic hatred was smashed like an eggshell. The protagonist here, 17-year-old Irena Zaric, is a high-school basketball star. Her father is Serb, her mother Muslim; her brother is out of the country. The remaining member of the family is Pretty Bird, a beloved parrot with an amazing repertoire of sounds. Serb paramilitaries roust the family from their apartment building; Mr. Zaric is roughed up; Irena is raped. They trek to a Muslim neighborhood only to find grandmother shot dead; they camp out in her apartment. No heat, no light. Irena is recruited as a sniper by the wily Tedic, who, as an assistant principal, understands the adolescent: her athlete’s reflexes make her ideal. In a coming-of-age no parent would wish on his or her child, Irena asks the hard questions: What about innocent Serbs? How are we different from Serb snipers? But she overcomes initial misgivings and excels at her work, and the story zips along with crisp dialogue and plenty of gallows humor. Simon has an eye for the telling detail (the fascination with Western pop icons) and for the larger picture: the ineffectual Blue Helmets (UN troops), the shaky alliance between Bosnian Muslims and fundamentalist Arabs. He even manages a cliffhanger ending.
A magnificent tribute, not just to the Sarajevans whose siege Simon reported, but to the indestructible human spirit.