Newcomer Senstad offers up a tightly plotted—if at times credibility-stretching—little tragedy with its roots in the atrocities of the Bosnian war.
In Oslo lives Mette Kalstad, by heritage a Hungarian Jew (her parents survived Auschwitz) married to the orderly and aloof but devoted Hans Olav—and still, after 15 years, childless. When Hans Olav agrees to take in two war refugees—“a Bosnian Muslim man and his Croatian Catholic wife”—the delicate balance of the Kalstad household is knocked askew. The destabilization starts with Mette’s unflagging attempts to befriend the Croatian Zheljka, learning at last that Zheljka had not only been gang-raped by Serbs during the war, and gotten pregnant, but also had brought the child to term, giving him, in her appalled confusion of love and disgust, the name of Zero. Reunited with her in Rome, Zheljka’s husband Mesud insisted the boy go up for adoption, and Zero was taken by an Italian high official and his also-childless wife. The boy, though, is deeply troubled and far too difficult for this very proper foster-father, who writes Zheljka saying that he wants to return the boy to her—in a letter intercepted by the always slightly kleptomaniacal Mette. Reading it, her deeply frustrated desire for motherhood springs forth at once, and Mette sets off on a complicated and not always quite believable plan to take Zero for her own and become at last the mother she’s always wanted (and that her dying father begged her) to be. The plan, though, leads to results of almost every kind other than Mette’s intended ones, among them the deeper ruination of lives that had only just begun to find some very faint promise of happiness and hope.
A look into loss and horror, in war and out, that is capable of compelling its reader—and leaving behind a sense of deep pity